November 28, 2008

The Tales of Hoffmann at Covent Garden

Hickox, who died suddenly on Sunday, had conducted the 2004 revival of this opera, the production in which Rolando Villazón created a sensation in the title role and instantly became a household name.

Returning to the role, one which is a gift to such a versatile and committed character player, Villazón seemed older and wiser: more mature in his interpretation, instantly establishing his presence with the inebriate bluster of the Prologue’s Kleinzach song but equally comfortable with the nostalgic reveries of the Epilogue; and more astute in his pacing, somewhat restrained at the start but sensibly conserving his voice, relaxing and releasing a tone of warmth and ardour in the final scenes.

Hoffmann_ROH_05.pngKatie Van Kooten as Antonia
The production itself cannot be said to have made the same graceful passage to maturity. The revival director, Christopher Cowell, has retained the original Personenregie, with scarcely a fresh gesture. And, the old sets looked tired and fussy, even tawdrily camp: sumptuously extravagant and evocative of the opera’s various locations they may be, but the accumulation of superfluous detail results in a rather dated literalism — the ‘real’ gondola, the giant ‘floating’ bed and miles of vermillion velvet hammer home their points but leave little room for subtlety or imaginative nuance. Hoffmann’s original short stories combine artistry and grotesquery, sparkling glitter and dark, ponderous depths; yet this production seldom scratches beneath the surface, frequently lapsing into gratuitous, pantomimic clichés.

This was a solid rather than a stunning cast. Of the female roles, Ekaterina Lekhina as Olympia was the audience favourite although this listener found her rather underwhelming; but she was jerkily, jitteringly suggestive of a soulless automaton, and certainly conquered the vocal peaks with confidence and accuracy of intonation, although there was little sense of continuity of line as she scaled the precipices. Katie van Kooten was an impressive Antonia, her radiant upper range strong and clear, although underneath the intonation was sometimes suspect and marred by unfocused note production. Christine Rice’s Guilietta was an intelligent, dramatically convincing performance, the powerful lower register of her resonant dark mezzo delightfully sensuous, perfectly conveying the courtesan’s allure. However, at times she overpowered Villazón in their duet textures, for while his high-lying lines were delivered with cleanness and panache, he was more subdued in the lower registers. Moreover, the erotic intertwining of the intended soprano and mezzo timbres in Guilietta’s duet with Niklausse, another mezzo, were diminished. Indeed, despite Rice’s intelligent portrayal, the Venetian act was the least successful; the assorted writhing couples languorously scattered about the opulent milieu evoked little genuine sensuality, and the whole lacked dramatic tension.

In the dual role of Niklausse/Muse, Kristine Jepson’s bright, animated tone projected well. Jepson has much stage confidence and natural ease; and she established an engaging relationship with Villazón which would have benefited from more sensitive and encouraging direction.

Hoffmann_ROH_02.pngRolando Villazón as Hoffmann and Ekaterina Lekhina as Olympia

Gidon Saks was a pantomime villain and rather underpowered nemesis. While his Act 2 Dr Miracle oozed menace and malevolence, both characterisation and projection weakened in the later stages of the opera. The veteran character tenor, Graham Clark, had tremendous fun in his multiple roles as the four servants, raising many a laugh; but his grotesque shrieks and exaggerated affectations destroyed the poignancy of Hoffmann’s demise.

The minor roles were uniformly compelling: Matthew Rose was Crespel, Robin Leggate, Spalanzani, and Gaynor Keeble, the spirit of Stella’s mother. Kostas Smoriginas was a commanding Schlemil.

Antonio Pappano led the orchestra of the ROH on a competent, but rather pedestrian passage through the score, with little feeling for the delicate touch and deft subtleties of French frivolity. The orchestral playing was often heavy and sluggish, and even the renowned Barcarolle lacked shimmer and transparency. Overall, Pappano created little energy and forward momentum; and occasionally the pit-stage ensemble was insecure, particularly in the choruses.

Hoffmann_ROH_04.pngRolando Villazón as Hoffmann and Gidon Saks as Coppélius

So, this was Rolando Villazón’s evening. There have been endless musicological speculations about missing, eliminated, reconstructed and re-positioned material. Here the Venetian Act was placed second, making nonsense of Hoffmann’s progression from hope of first material, then unworldly, fulfilment to disillusionment and despair. Thus, this production relied on its Hoffmann to unite the self-contained acts and to provide continuity and credibility. While some might complain that Villazón’s acting was at times overly frenetic and hyperactive, there is no doubt that his commitment to the role is absolute: and he conveyed Hoffmann's descent from youthful naïf to alcoholic cynic with total conviction. If Villazón took a little while to warm up vocally, this is understandable given the stamina required for such sustained musical and dramatic commitment. And, in the concluding moments, the slightly guarded tone of the earlier acts blossomed into a radiating timbre of myriad colours. Just what the audience had been waiting for.

Claire Seymour

Hoffmann_ROH_06.pngA scene from The Tales of Hoffmann

image= image_description=Rolando Villazón as Hoffmann and Christine Rice as Giuletta (Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House) product=yes product_title=Jacques Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffmann product_by= Hoffmann (Rolando Villazón); Lindorf (Villain) (Gidon Saks); Coppélius (Villain) (Gidon Saks); Dappertutto (Villain) (Gidon Saks); Miracle (Villain) (Gidon Saks); Nicklausse (Kristine Jepson); Andrès (Servant) (Graham Clark); Cochenille (Servant) (Graham Clark); Pittichinaccio (Servant) (Graham Clark); Frantz (Servant) (Graham Clark); Olympia (Ekaterina Lekhina/Vassiliki Karayanni); Giuletta (Christine Rice); Antonia (Katie Van Kooten); Spalanzani (Robin Leggate); Schlemil (Kostas Smoriginas); Crespel (Matthew Rose); Luther (Lynton Black); Hermann (Changhan Lim); Nathanael (Ji-Min Park); Voice of Antonia's Mother (Gaynor Keeble). The Royal Opera. Conductor: Anthony Pappano. Original Production: John Schlesinger. Revival Director: Christopher Cowell. Set Designs: William Dudley. product_id=Above: Rolando Villazón as Hoffmann and Christine Rice as Giuletta

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House
Posted by Gary at 11:22 AM

November 25, 2008

Hickox death sparks artistic review

Joyce Morgan [Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 2008]

It should have been a joyful reunion. Richard Hickox, buoyed after a critically acclaimed series of concerts in Britain, was looking forward to the arrival of his family from Sydney.

Posted by Gary at 10:37 PM

Debussy’s Pelléas - a fine swansong for Independent Opera in London

For many devotees of Debussy’s great work this might have seemed heresy and doomed to failure, but they would have been wrong. For three nights at Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Bayliss Theatre in London last week capacity audiences were treated to not only a magnificently innovative production but also to a highly successful and totally sympathetic orchestral reduction of the score that never once sounded thin or lacking in texture and Debussian detail.

Add to this some very promising young voices, nurtured in the tradition of Independent Opera, and this was a fine way to end, sadly, a programme of opera stagings by Independent and to set the bar high for any similar undertakings in the future.

The atmosphere of fatalism, of humans moving within the eternal constraints of their kind, enclosed in the “forest” of the castle’s stifling social norms was brilliantly realised with a dark set consisting of 3 zig-zag wooden walkways supported by pillars which created both a “pit” for the musicians underneath and an exit and entry space, on occasion, for the singers. The castle’s permanent residents, Arkel and Geneviève, move mainly on wires controlled by “servants” (or masters?)visible at the sides of the walkways, presumably indicating their incapacity to break out of the prison of their own making, whilst the other characters are “free” to move at will. All are dressed in the constricting costumes of the opera’s own time, circa 1902, and everything seems to have a patina of dust and dereliction about it, with both castle and grotto, forest and seashore, merely hinted at with single props and occasional flats. Mélisande, the focus and intuit of this psychological drama, seems to emerge from these shadows, is illuminated briefly and fatally as she embarks on her relationships with Golaud and Pelléas, and returns to whatever realm she came from, leaving her child as legacy, or, possibly, her curse.

If the design, set and direction (Madeleine Boyd/Alessandro Talevi) worked memorably well, then it was entirely complemented by Stephen McNeff’s scholarly but entirely sympathetic new orchestration for 35 instruments. Never once did one feel anything was missing — the smaller space absorbed the smaller string sound, and other important Debussy sound-world effects were retained by clever reallocation of parts. Significant obbligatos — flute, harp, oboe etc — were all there, and if this put more strain on the soloists, it didn’t show. Stylish and dramatic by turn, effortlessly idiomatic, conductor Dominic Wheeler gave this refined version the attention it deserved.

The singing was uniformly good, sometimes excellent, with the many French speakers in the cast keeping the all-important rhythm and style of the libretto intact. If Ingrid Perruche was a trifle too robust, both vocally and physically, for an ideal Mélisande, there was no doubting her abilities to interpret the text intelligently. Her most believable Pelléas was the young Norwegian baritone Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy who, after a slightly strained start, sang with fluency and the requisite ardour, making light of the high tessitura. In perfect contrast to him was the dark, resonant bass-baritone of Andrew Foster-Williams as the tortured Golaud, a singer whose voice has blossomed into something very special these past few years. The tone was fully supported and consistent through the range, he has power to spare and obviously relishes this kind of dramatic challenge relatively early in his career; it cannot be long before his Golaud is taken up by a major house. The Arkel of bass Frédéric Bourreau was assured and poignant — he managed to convey a sense of what the old king might once have been — whilst Marie Elliot as Geneviéve used her warm mezzo to good effect, despite the quite literal confines of her role. Young soprano Caryl Hughes as the child Yniold cleverly whitened her voice to almost boy-soprano tone and was convincing as the innocent vaguely troubled by what he observes around him. Young Czech bass Vojtech Safarik sang his few Doctor’s lines with assurance.

Pelleas_et_Melisande_2.pngIngrid Perruche (Mélisande) and Andrew Foster-Williams (Golaud)

This was opera as it should be but seldom is — innovative yet respectful, ambitious yet pragmatic, and above all committed to the development of talent in all departments. We shall miss Independent Opera’s productions in the UK and can only hope that their ideals are carried on elsewhere.

Sue Loder © 2008

image= image_description=Ingrid Perruche(Mélisande) with Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy as Pelléas [Photo by Robbie Jack courtesy of Independent Opera Company]

product=yes producttitle=C. Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande productby=Pelléas (Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy); Mélisande (Ingrid Perruche); Golaud (Andrew Foster-Williams); Arkel (Frédéric Bourreau); Geneviève (Julie Pasturaud (18 & 20 November), Marie Elliott (22 November)); Yniold (Caryl Hughes); Médécin (Vojtěch Šafařík (18 & 22 November), Vuyani Mlinde (20 November)); Berger (Dominic Wheeler); Child (Anna Wheeler). Independent Opera Company. Conductor: Dominic Wheeler. Director: Alessandro Talevi, Designer: Madeleine Boyd. product_id=Above: Ingrid Perruche (Mélisande) with Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy as Pelléas

All photos by Robbie Jack courtesy of Independent Opera Company

Posted by Gary at 9:09 PM

The MET Celebrates 125th Anniversary with Gala Performance 3/15

By BWW News Desk [25 November 2008]

The Metropolitan Opera celebrates its 125th anniversary year with a unique gala performance on March 15, 2009 at 6:00 p.m., featuring Met stars in recreations of historic classic productions and high points in the company’s past. Music Director James Levine conducts the evening of 26 staged scenes that, with the use of projections, and scenic and costume recreations, will evoke the Met’s illustrious history.

Posted by Gary at 8:40 PM

La traviata, Komische Oper Berlin

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 24 November 2008]

This Violetta has her pimp with her, a well-built and violent young man. We know that he is violent because he has knives. We know that he is well-built because he is half naked. At Flora’s party, the assembled party guests hold him fast and cut out his heart. Alfred and Douphol take turns sticking skewers into the excised organ instead of playing cards. It spurts little gouts of blood. The pimp later reappears, heartless but otherwise whole.

Posted by Gary at 7:48 PM

Boston Early Music Festival Opera This Weekend--Tickets Are Going Fast!

[MarketWatch, 24 November 2008]

The Boston Early Music Festival presents two stunning, semi-staged one-act operas this weekend—an elegant double-bill featuring lush costumes, splendid dancing, unforgettable singing, and the romance of 17th century story-telling, and all accompanied by the Grammy-nominated Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra.

Posted by Gary at 7:43 PM

Boris Godunov at ENO

One is Handel; the other, the large-scale Russian repertoire. It has been almost six years since the company last tackled the latter, but that revival of Khovanshchina left such an indelible impression that a new foray into this sector of the repertoire could not have been more eagerly awaited.

It is, to my mind, a shame that ENO chose to give Boris Godunov in its original seven-scene version of 1869. Running slightly over two hours, without an interval, it certainly has its merits in terms of dramatic tautness and momentum, but it is undeniably a weaker and poorer piece than the later versions. Most crucially, it lacks almost all the political and religious context of the later, longer version. The missing Polish act holds vital pieces of the jigsaw when it comes to Russia's history with Lithuania – it actually supplies the bedrock for the whole story. Without those scenes, all the focus is thrown onto Boris's private demons and the hardships of the Russian people. It is almost an entirely different opera.

Boris_Godunov_014.pngSimpleton (Robert Murray)
Tim Albery's new production follows through the idea of stripping the piece bare. Tobias Hoheisel's set is simple and unusually austere; the entire opera seems to take place in a giant wooden crate, perhaps a barn. Various different rooms are created by platforms which slide in and out or come out hinges. It's a drab brownish-grey, the colour of the peasants' costumes. When colour is used, it is generally for effect; against this muted background, the rich patterns of Boris's coronation robe are as garish as the clanging bells up in the Balcony. Grigory's red hair instantly marks him out as a figure of interest. The Innkeeper (Yvonne Howard) is vividly attired too, and her mobile bar is a colourful affair – a welcome break for travellers from the surrounding dreariness. Together with costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel, Albery has done his best to make the action timeless by combining costume designs from different periods. The peasants' attire is generically 20th-century, while Boris's coronation seems to take place centuries earlier; other costumes fall somewhere in between.

Peter Rose played Boris as a man whose occupation of the throne is as uneasy as he feared it would be. There was a warmth to his portrayal which made Boris likeable; the mad scene was never really gripping or hair-raising, but was full of pathos. Vocally, he held his own, with a sharper focus than I have heard in the past, though his expressive range is limited.

Boris_Godunov_001.pngScene from Boris Godunov

The staging makes much of the Simpleton; curled up in one corner of the stage during the final scene, he witnesses Boris's breakdown and eventually leads the dying Tsar off into the beyond. Robert Murray's clear, lovely tenor was ideal, imbued with innocence and pathos.

The American tenor, Gregory Turay, was a handsome and secure-voiced Grigory, while John Graham-Hall was a wraith-like Shuisky, the pointed precision of his diction making him all the more sinister. Brindley Sherratt's Pimen was outstanding.

Although this version of the piece barely gives either of Boris's children an opportunity to make their mark, Sophie Bevan was an attractive and lyrical Xenia, and Anna Grevelius a confident Fyodor. (Xenia's second costume – the most striking of the whole production wardrobe – was worn for a ten-second dash across the stage, and again for the curtain call. What a waste!) Jonathan Veira was a characterful Varlaam.

Boris_Godunov_008.pngXenia (Sophie Bevan) and Nurse (Deborah Davison)

The opening scene did not show the (greatly augmented) chorus in their best light, with the ladies especially sounding shrill and vibrato-laden – but they rose to the challenge as the evening went on. The orchestra was magnificent under the baton of ENO's Music Director Edward Gardner, with muscular sound, sensitive phrasing, and particularly fine playing from the woodwind section. Now can we have the rest of the opera, please?

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image= image_description=John Graham-Hall as Prince Vasily Shuisky and Peter Rose as Boris Godunov [Photo by Clive Barda] product=yes product_title=M. Musorgsky: Boris Godunov product_by=Boris Godunov (Peter Rose); Prince Shuisky (John Graham-Hall); Andrei Shchelkalov (David Stephenson); Pimen (Brindley Sherratt); Varlaam (Jonathan Veira); Nikitich (Charles Johnston); Simpleton (Robert Murray). English National Opera. Conductor: Edward Gardner. Director: Tim Albery. Designer: Tobias Hoheisel. product_id=Above: John Graham-Hall as Prince Vasily Shuisky and Peter Rose as Boris Godunov

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 4:36 PM

La Bohème in San Francisco

On the downbeat it quickly parted to reveal a scenic contraption that was a garret of sorts, its mattress elevated on a pile (illustrated, not real) of books, and an admonition written on the wall Se plaindre c’est un perdre du temps (for those of the audience who didn’t know French or were sitting too far away to read it, this told us that complaining is a waste of time).

So, let us not waste time on what we found lacking, and get right to what we liked. San Francisco Opera Music Director designate, Nicola Luisotti, participated with every syllable uttered on the stage, literally quivered with every emotion, and wrenched very grand pathos out of Puccini’s sad little story. Donald Runicles’ San Francisco Opera Orchestra responded full bore to their new maestro with renewed lyricism and resplendent tone proving itself again one of the world’s fine operatic ensembles.

Moments of extraordinary verismo abounded. The monochromatic tenor of Piotr Beczala made sudden sense in the third act when Mo. Luisotti orchestrally evoked the naïve, adolescent recognition of new feelings by what seemed to be an emotionally retarded tenor. The fourth act duet of reconciliation shivered with tiny flashes of love, and finally the sudden, overwhelming orchestral cry, joined by that of Rodolfo, shattered the silence of death.

Boheme_SFO_140.pngNorah Amsellem (Musetta)
Back at the first act, Mimi and Rodolfo sustained full throated high “C’s” offstage as the garret contraption disappeared into kinetic openness of a Parisian place. Illustrated hotels de la ville materialized in front of our eyes in a surprisingly simple, and pleasing a vista transformation of scene. The Cafe Momus later materialized much less elegantly, to become populated suddenly and a little strangely by a noisy crowd of youngsters — the amazing San Francisco Boys Chorus (with some members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus) singing boisterously and joyfully, and always on the beat.

The big house extravagance of a real marching band (two drums, four trumpets, two piccolos) parading noisily across the stage at the end of Act II was deeply satisfying too. Some of the best Boheme’s understandably occur in provincial theaters where resources are usually as humble as are the opera’s protagonists, and where it is far more cost efficient to render this lively musical climax from the pit.

If Maestro Luisotti gave us the very real if overscaled emotions of verismo, Angela Gheorghiu gave us simplicity itself as the ill-fated Mimi. She was the evening’s only believable and real character, achieved by la Gheorghiu with true artistry, artistry that often tested, and sometimes even teased her considerable, sophisticated vocal technique. Madame Gheorghiu (she is an officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) indeed creates a vocally complex Mimi. That it is so physically manifest (acted out) is another matter, understandably irritating to the uninitiated, and irritating to stage directors who are almost universally not among her fans.

One can only sympathize with Mme. Gheorghiu in her trials with Lyric Opera of Chicago regarding an AWOL from her Chicago Boheme manquée rehearsals to visit Roberto who was singing Faust just then at the Met (if there is possibly anyone who does not yet know, the French tenorissimo Roberto Alagna is her husband). As Mme. Gheorghiu knows, Mimi is the calm center of the maelstrom of emotions that are La Boheme. What more is there for her to do than walk on stage at the end of Act I and sit on the bed while Rodolfo sings, sit at a table at the Cafe Momus while Musetta sings, hover in the background in Act III while Rodolfo and Marcello sing, and lie in bed in Act IV while her friends emote one by one. Quite obviously it is Mimi’s friends, not Mimi, who need rehearsal time as they are the ones who complete the show.

Boheme_SFO_193.pngScene from Act II

These San Francisco Opera performances of La Boheme (the last one will mark the two hundred twenty third SFO performance of Puccini’s little opera) bare the delicacy of this masterpiece when attempted with extravagant operatic resources. In San Francisco the problem was integrating smaller scale artists — singers, directors and designers - with great artists and with grand opera scale choral, orchestral and technical resources.

Michael Milenski

image= image_description=Piotr Beczala (Rodolfo) and Angela Gheorghiu (Mimí) [Photo by ]

product=yes producttitle=G. Puccini: La Bohème productby=Mimì: Angela Gheorghiu / Maija Kovalevska (11/29, 12/4, 12/7) / Melody Moore (12/2); Rodolfo: Piotr Beczala / Marius Brenciu (11/29, 12/4, 12/7); Marcello: Quinn Kelsey / Brian Mulligan (11/19, 11/22, 11/29, 12/4, 12/7); Musetta: Norah Amsellem / Tamara Wapinsky (11/29, 12/4, 12/7); Colline: Oren Gradus / Kenneth Kellogg (11/29, 12/4, 12/7); Schaunard: Brian Leerhuber; Benoit, Alcindoro: Dale Travis; Parpignol: Colby Roberts; Customhouse Sergeant: David Kekuewa; Customhouse Officer: Jere Torkelsen; Prune Vendor: Chester Pidduck. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti / Giuseppe Finzi (12/4, 12/7). Director: Harry Silverstein. Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. product_id=Above: Piotr Beczala (Rodolfo) and Angela Gheorghiu (Mimí)
All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera.

Posted by Gary at 12:33 PM

Lulu-Palooza in the Windy City

For Ms. Petersen has everything the role requires: gleaming lyric tone, unstrained high notes, first rate musicianship, a thorough understanding of the structure of the doomed girl’s dramatic arc, star presence, a waif-like figure, and truly great gams. So why was I not more emotionally engaged with her very definitive achievement?

Well, for all her consummate professionalism, she seemed to be just on the fringes of the character’s soul. The great director/teacher Charles Nelson Reilly once critiqued an actress thus: “My dear, you are wonderful, but you’re not acting — you’re giving a ‘performance.’” And that in part is what I felt about Ms. Petersen. Wonderful ‘performance,’ yes, but where was the internalized gnawing motivation that informs this creature? In her defense, and to risk musical heresy, I feel that in large part the omission is composer Berg’s.

The text asks us to believe this woman is irresistible, a charismatic being that inspires unhealthy sexual obsession in all who cross her path. I was not yet convinced this night that the intent of the tale is borne out by its musicalization. The heroine’s churning prosaic declamation, the oft-angular leaps, the quirky melismas that sound like “Lucia” on a bender, the pitches in extremis where only dogs can hear — all these make me admire the technique and the intellect to be sure, but do not engage my emotions. Or my libido.

Perhaps a uniquely gifted stage creature like Natalie Dessay could truly inhabit this role and make the dramatic work. Until then, Ms. Petersen’s very real achievement will likely nevertheless give much pleasure to many fans of this troubling piece. Not that hers was the evening’s only success.

The talented and versatile William Burden was simply the best Alwa of my experience. Is there anything at which this accomplished tenor does not excel? Here he sang with his customary easy precision, and spun out some achingly beautiful phrases. His duet with the heroine was arguably the highpoint of the evening. Dramatically committed, pristine tone and technique, handsome presence, Mr. Burden delivered on all counts.

The much anticipated Lyric debut by Wolfgang Schoene, a notable Dr. Shoen, was impressively musical and secure of characterization. His rather straight vocal production certainly filled the large house, although I found it a little on the dry side. Still, nothing about the part escapes him and he was often thrilling and ultimately (as Jack) chilling. Thomas Hammons’s booming, orotund Schigolch was more to my vocal taste and he made the most of his stage time. The rich, ringing contralto-ish Countess Geschwitz from Jill Grove was also top drawer, and she had good fun with parts of the role, running around in the bustle of Act II like Estelle Parsons chasing the getaway car in Bonnie and Clyde.

Lulu_LOC_09.pngMarlis Petersen (title role) and Wolfgang Schöne (Dr. Schön) in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Lulu, directed by Paul Curran for the 2008-09 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

The many featured roles were well taken by Lyric’s outstanding young artists, with Scott Ramsay’s Painter deserving special mention for his gleaming delivery. Only Jan Buchwald seemed not quite in the same league as this stellar group of soloists, with a fairly woolly and diffuse Animal Tamer. While he sang much more clearly as the Athlete, Mr. Buchwald suggested more an East Bloc WWF act than the usual trim track star.

Stage director Paul Curran managed his skilled cast with excellent results, combining meaningful groupings and well motivated blocking with often inspired stage business. He also successfully mined all the humor in the piece which greatly heightened the catastrophic outcome. Kevin Knight’s effective set design pulled off the trick of using a white-box-as-unit-environment without parodying the dreadful cliche’s of 1980’s German opera design. This handsomely detailed space was changeably adorned with well chosen dressing, and subsequently opened up at the back to reveal a beautiful multi-leveled staircase. Mr. Knight also provided the characterful costumes.

If anything, I felt the white set was perhaps too clean, too bright, too open for the dark undercurrents of the story. But I grouse. The overall look of the design was a fine artistic achievement, especially paired with the spot-on (as it were) projections and film work contributed by John Boesche, and as meaningfully lit by David Jacques. First rate all.

In the pit, Sir Andrew Davis drew exceptional playing from this fine band, and made as cogent a case as I think possible for Berg’s opus. The occasional volume imbalances between orchestra and stage are seemingly unavoidable, given the thick brass voicings at some key junctures. The highly affecting, personalized solo instrumental work was equaled by superlative ensemble playing.

I cannot imagine a better case being made for this complex, challenging piece of musical theater. Still, after four different (good) productions to date, and many earnest “listens,” I frankly still don’t respond to the score. My limitation, I know. That I am not alone was evidenced by a trickle of audience leaving at the first intermission, augmented by a stream of departees after Act II.

At the end of the day, then, I have to say I found myself totally loving most everyone and everything about Lyric Opera’s admirable Lulu except…it.

James Sohre

image= image_description=Wolfgang Schöne (Dr. Schön) and Marlis Petersen (title role) in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Lulu, directed by Paul Curran for the 2008-09 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

product=yes producttitle=Alban Berg: Lulu productby=Lulu: Marlis Petersen; Dr. Schön/Jack The Ripper: Wolfgang Schöne; Countess Geschwitz: Jill Grove; Alwa: William Burden; Schigolch: Thomas Hammons; Painter/Black Man: Scott Ramsay; Animal Trainer/Athlete: Jan Buchwald; Prince/Marquis/Manservant: Rodell Rosel; Wardrobe Mistress/Schoolboy/Groom: Buffy Baggott. Lyric Opera of Chicago. Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis. Director: Paul Curran. Designer: Kevin Knight. product_id=Above: Wolfgang Schöne (Dr. Schön) and Marlis Petersen (title role) in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Lulu, directed by Paul Curran for the 2008-09 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Posted by james_s at 7:55 AM

November 23, 2008

The ‘Colors’ of La Fanciulla

The twentieth-century phase (from La Fanciulla del West to Turandot) is tidily compartmentalized from the fin de siècle phase (from Manon Lescaut to Madama Butterfly). In the former, a manifestation of a distinct sensibility for the crisis in the operatic form of the period and (without a refutation of a dramatic style grounded in realism) the adoption of a series of innovative strategies in the realm of diversification of subjects, refinement of musical means, exploration of staging resources, in a word toward the reorientation of dramatic perspectives as a whole, can be discerned.

Beyond the convergence of orchestral language and musicality with a few of the primary exponents of European musical modernism such as Debussy, Strauss and Stravinsky, certainly meaningful and conscious reverberations in an ever forward-looking musician, one of the most evident hallmarks of Puccini’s twentieth-century period is the retrospective itinerary which his dramatic style follows. The high point of Puccini’s modernity is thus attributed to works such as Il Trittico and Turandot. In the three parts of Il Trittico a manneristic compendium of outdated genres and dramatic styles is realized: from the Grand Guignol realism of Il Tabarro (a revisiting of veristic subjects in his 1890s style), to the sentimental opera centered on the heroine’s tragic fate in Suor Angelica (a perfect example of Puccinian’s fin de siècle mode, colored by archaic musical pieces grounded by the liturgical context of the story), to the recuperation of the comic genre in Gianni Schicchi (which, differing from the contemporary reconstructions of eighteenth-century buffo, brings a non-restorative comic style, based on contemporary language and staging). In Turandot a binary option for the revival of the operatic genre is offered: on one hand, through the reformulation of the fairy tale under a mythical heading; on the other, through the meticulous reconstruction of the forms of nineteenth-century melodrama (commonly referred to as the “solite forme” of operatic works).

Another option of modernist dramaturgical rethinking is at play in Puccini’s twentieth-century works: that of stylistic fragmentation, of breaking down compositions into heterogeneous linguistic blocks, in keeping with the standardized categorization of vocal types and of the dramatis personae. Again Turandot is the culmination of this trend. A musical articulation in blocks bases itself on an array of character types and situations (the tragic, solitary Turandot and the sympathetic slave Liù; the heroism of Prince Calaf which launches his dual challenge to the enigmatic and stunning princess, and the sentimental side of a Calaf who is interested in the fate of the little slave girl; the grotesque masks [Ping, Pang and Pong]). At some moments these blocks are carved out of the free use of dissonant intervals and harmonic units (Turandot’s imperious and cruel sphere), at others from the exotic material of pentatonic scales and authentic Chinese melodies (the marionette-like irony of the masks, but also the human side and intimate innocence of Turandot). Still others come from the sentimental and poignant melodies of Puccini’s normal style (generally the parts of Calaf and the slave Liù). The humanization of Turandot, her metamorphosis from purveyor of death to a being capable of love, is therefore put together through a series of frontal juxtapositions in which the princess collides with registers and stylistic levels expressed by the other characters (Turandot’s cruelty and Liù’s sacrifice, the Prince of Persia’s failure and the unknown prince’s success, the icy body of the death-princess and the “burning hands” with which Calaf crushes her in his ardent embrace). This metamorphosis corresponds more to the opera’s complex dramatic and visual program than in the character’s internal motivations. The opera beats out the chronological proceeding of the story, from sunset to sunrise, from the cold spite of the moon’s silvery reflections to the warmth of the sun’s golden rays. [1]

From both of these points of view, the problem of La Fanciulla del West remains an open one: according to a widespread tradition of interpretation, it is a “difficult” opera, one of transition, in part unresolved on the level of dramatic/musical coherence, a work of crisis, not yet one of reformation, a recognition of a new path but of a path not yet taken with confidence. Even pioneer supporters of the modernity and novelty of Puccianian dramaturgy such as Fedele d’Amico, (who never tired of repeating that Puccini has always been modern, be it when the “naturalist”in the common, petit-bourgeois sense of the word, prevails in him, or when the “twentieth-century, aestheticizing” musician dominates, that is when he “is capable, in his own way, of that decadent distancing from his own material” which forms the dividing line between nineteenth- and twentieth-century music) succumb to doubts and display substantial reservations when faced with Fanciulla: the Puccinian western is thus the opera in which music comes to be reduced to an “abstract theatrical gesture,” to the “incoherent marginal notes , which reigns over one stylistic element alone, rigorously abstracted from the others: the orchestral color.” [2]

Following the maestro’s remarks on the opera one gets the impression that Fanciulla del West was a turning point, which anticipates and leads to the masterpieces of Il Trittico and Turandot. The choice of the drama’s subject, David Belasco’s [1905] The Girl of the Golden West, difficulties encountered with the new pair of librettists (Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zargarini) which led to the composer’s assumption of almost the entire creative workload, as well as the opera’s long gestation period (longer than any other of Puccini’s works) which drew on until the New York première of 10 December 1910, all crown a period marked by a veritable anxiety over change (the “mania of pushing on…with a modernly constructed and intended work” Puccini disclosed in a letter in February 1905, right after Madama Butterfly) and dramatic restructuring:

Sometimes I think about something like La Bohème, the tragic and sentimental mixed with the comic (and I believe that this genre could stand to be reformed, certainly with different customs and practices, and thus it will require new settings, less sweet sentimentality (that is in a smaller quantity) and more “déchirant” drama. [3]

There we have it! The Girl promises to be a second Bohème, but stronger, bolder, fuller. [4]

It is precisely by means of Puccini’s twentieth-century perspective, which aims at a systemized linguistic flexibility and the composition of opera as a moment of retrospection and reformulation of languages, styles and forms, that in this essay I intend to propose a reinterpretation of the essential elements of Fanciulla del West , and in particular of those which express the “primary colors” of the story and its heroine.

1. The miners’ “sister”

The aspect of vocal types is one evident feature that distinguishes Fanciulla from previous Puccini operas. The usage of only one female voice, the soprano Minnie — the Indian-girl Wowkle, mezzo-soprano, has an entirely marginal role — counterpoised against the dense group of voices of the male characters who populate the miners’ camp (at the foot of the Cloudy Mountains in the Californian Sierra at the time of the Gold Rush) establishes a hitherto unheard of vocal dynamic, which poses entirely new problems of musical equilibrium to the composer. Such problems can be seen in two areas: firstly, from the point of view of individual differentiation, as is the case with the sheriff Jack Rance and the miner Sonora, both baritones but with opposite qualities, the former treacherous and scornful, the latter noble in spirit (a strategy that in hindsight prefigures one of the key elements of the drama of Suor Angelica). Secondly, problems arise from the point of view of the group treatment of the legion of basses, baritones and supporting tenors. Puccini’s solution here creates the peculiar vocal color of Fanciulla. Gianni Schicchi will be the most direct development upon it.

Overall, this kind of collective yet internally differentiated male character, composed of a mix of gold diggers, adventurers and outlaws, is the expression of a primitive society without rules, a world of crude men. As the stereotype would have it the men are drunk, cheating, trigger-happy, indifferent toward life and uncaring about death (“Evvia! Che è poi la morte / un calcio dentro al buio e buona notte” according to Sheriff Rance’s cynical philosophy). It is deep within this society that Minnie – the woman with a pistol, vigorous, and, if necessary, brutal administrator of the “Polka” saloon, by collective trust and common maternal identification the guardian of the camp’s fortunes – expresses the “energetic,” “savage,” “wiry” side of her personality. The musical color that connotes this sphere of action and this aspect of the protagonist is rough and vigorous, its fundamental qualities are its cutting rhythm, its asymmetrical phrasing, a dissonant and thorny harmonic language (unrelated harmonies of sevenths, ninths, elevenths, augmented chords, whole tone scales), a moment of vocal heroism for Minnie. To illustrate that this color is a permanent and unchangeable feature of this particular society, there is a series of episodes distributed in the arc of the entire opera: in Act I, the episode of the attempted hanging of the cheater Sid (“Al laccio il ladro!”) and the squabble between Rance and Sonora, interrupted by Minnie’s forceful reprimand (“Mistrees Rance, fra poco”); in Act II, the scene in which Rance and his men burst into Minnie’s hut (“Chiamano…chi sarà”); in Act III, the episodes of the manhunt (in the score two measures after rehearsal number 5), of Johnson’s capture (“A morte!”) and of his subsequent rescue by Minnie (from rehearsal number 29 on).

2. The “povera fanciulla oscura, e buona a nulla” and the bandito

A distinct color shows the other side of Minnie’s personality: a girl who is “sweet,” “civilized,” (the little schoolteacher of the camp with “only thirty dollars of education” and a taste for romantic novels), “proudly virginal,” and “strong of spirit.” She is also deeply unsure of herself, such that she paints herself as “dim, and good for nothing.” She is a girl who paradoxically has not yet danced her first dance, nor given her first kiss in search of love. In contrast to the connotation of the “savage” Minnie, her sweet and virginal side are delineated by means of diatonic music, tonally defined or guided towards pentatonic solution, with symmetry in phrasing and a simple and smooth vocal line . In this mode the protagonist expresses her own kindly attitude toward the miners (one need only think of the episode of the catechism on Psalm LI) * and her nostalgic and dreamy declaration of regrets and more intimate desires (e.g. “S’amavan tanto” in the duet with Rance). But, above all, this dramatic-musical color plays a conspicuous role in the lady’s sentimental attitude toward Dick Johnson, the chance visitor to the Polka whom she met once before and never again forgot, with whom she retires to the intimate setting of her mountain hut and shares her first dance and first kiss, and who reveals himself to be none other than the terrible outlaw Ramerrez, desperately wanted by the men of the camp. This color is aptly prevalent in the duets between Minnie and Johnson: at the conclusion of Act I, in the moment of their tender feelings (from rehearsal number 114); in the Act II duet’s episodes of courtship (“Del biscotto alla crema?”) and of the ecstasy in their pleasure (“Minnie…Che dolce nome!”). On the whole, the dialectic expressed through the two colors in Minnie’s personality (in their opposing auditory poles of attraction) neatly encapsulates the substance of the opera, a “drama of love and moral redemption,” evincing the dramatic motif that Puccini desperately wants to draw out of Belasco’s drama:

…in the adaptation of such violent source material I brought the inspiration of a vibrant and refined idealism , toward the end of encircling those catastrophic human events in a dreamlike atmosphere. In Belasco’s drama, for example…little emphasis was placed on the redeeming quality of the protagonist: it was I who had the librettists develop this to a greater extent, and thus this desire for purification, this pained cry for peace gained through love and hard work, became more clear and truthful. [5]

Without delay, Puccini attracts attention to this dramatic nucleus starting from the theme of the symphonic introduction, played before the curtain opens on the saloon. The theme of the introduction indeed presents a two-pronged makeup, dissonant and choppy in Minnie’s “savage” color in the first part, diatonic and in her sweet and spiritual color in the segment which follows. In fact, the interplay between love and redemption presented an opportunity new to Puccinian dramaturgy, which had hitherto conceived of love only in tragic terms, as an error to be remedied by death. Conversely, in Fanciulla, the social and moral rehabilitation of Johnson/Ramerrez is a sort of function of the sentiment of love, or a direct consequence thereof. Indeed this is achieved neither by means of an interior maturation of the characters nor by a development in their psychologies. Minnie stays concurrently savage and sweet throughout. This manifests itself primarily in her extreme gestures of bandit savagery: she is deceitful in the poker game with Rance and masculine and willful when she bursts onto the scene of Johnson’s would-be execution; however, she is also maternal and imploring when she attempts to win the miners over. Johnson is a two-dimensional character: a kind outlaw and a generous man from the beginning to the end. Redemption, therefore, results from nothing but a choice between two equally possible options (human affection instead of worldly possessions, loving Minnie instead of stealing gold), which the little schoolteacher’s exegesis of Psalm LI prefigures as the actuation of a destiny inscribed forever in the history of every man:

That means, boys, that there exists,
No sinner in the world
To whom a path to redemption is not revealed…
May each of you learn within yourself
To enclose this supreme truth of love

3. The ‘far-off’ West and the Waltz

To make this perspective evident, to dramatically realize it in music, stand two examples from Act I that blend into the action as simple stage music : the song of the balladeer Jack Wallace, “Che faranno i vecchi miei,” and the music of the waltz danced by Minnie and Dick Johnson at the Polka. These two pieces, which belong to the sphere of Minnie’s sweet and contemplative side, little by little come to signify the conceptual totality of dreams, nostalgia (the theme of homesickness, the desire to return to the home and family affections) and redemption through the passion of love. The song the minstrel entertains the miners with in Minnie’s saloon, which elicits a collective sentiment of despair and aggravates Larkens’ nervous state, is the first moment of real cantabile and the first long piece in the opera with tonal stability. Here Puccini combines a paraphrasing of the general tone and particular imagery found in the lyrics of a song from the repertoire of Californian balladeer music, known as Old Dog Tray (utilized in the intermezzo of the performance of Belasco’s Girl which Puccini attended at the beginning of 1907), with the melody of an original Zuni Indian chant (published with the title “The Festive Sun Dance of the Zuni” in 1904, arranged by the German-American composer Carlos Troyer). [6] This piece, which represents the primary locus of exotic color in the entire opera, is however tempered in part by a series of transformations in its melodic contour and by its operatic instrumentation, both of which diminish the piece’s most markedly “Indian” effects, in so doing emphasizing instead the symmetry and cadential regularity of the phrasing and thus conferring an “American” character, giving the piece a sort of melancholy cowboy air.

The dramatic impact of this piece is highlighted by the recurrence of its verbal theme (the persistent reiterations in the libretto of motives of homesickness and leaving for home), its musical theme (which comments upon Minnie’s biblical exegesis), and of both the verbal and musical theme (the baritone’s off-stage voice as the curtain rises and in the heartrending farewell epilogue). All this means that Sehnsucht [yearning or longing] for this other place, this remoteness found from top to bottom in Fanciulla, adds tension to both the change of place and living conditions we witness. This tension reaches a climax at the end by means of Johnson’s departure for a trip without return, signifying his redemption.

The waltz eases this process of metamorphosis. It is the second moment of real cantabile and the second long piece in the opera with tonal stability. Its melody, hummed by the miners in a musically crude fashion (without words and with a thin rhythmic accompaniment), at first a carefree little picture of the settings, slowly turns into a Puccinian cliché, that of a seduction dance, following the model of Musetta’s waltz in La Bohème. Once internalized by Minnie and Johnson, the dancing melody in fact becomes the primary color of their private sphere and, therefore, recurs as a principal component of the lyrical pieces that involve the two. These pieces start with and consistently return to the waltz, almost as if to suspend the situation (and associated sensations) until the moment in which it ends in the tumultuous embrace of the Act II duet.

4. “Parlante” vocal strategies

The repeated use of the waltz melody in the sung parts of the protagonists’ duets should also be read as a manifestation of melodic economy, in keeping with an aim of Puccini’s era to reject the appeal of fluent and versatile singability. Indeed one of the fundamental choices in composing found in Fanciulla del West is the interaction between singing broken down into small bits of declamation , with a melodic poorness so often exhibited that it constitutes a pattern, and the richness of the orchestral arrangement, which conversely is brought to life by its motifs, in the originality of its timbre, in the fullness of its harmonic writing. These are among the most evident symptoms of Puccini’s breaking away from the operatic dramaturgy of the nineteenth century and the extent to which he was moving toward a certain type of melodrama that at the time, in Italy, found its most solid support in the best productions of d’Annunzian decadent style of (for example, in the austere declamatory style of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Phaedra).

In Fanciulla the orchestra takes on both a lyric and dramatic function, the latter parallel to the singer’s verbalism, beyond assuming the primary staging/narrative functions in the plot often articulated by dialogues (the whole act at the Polka) and those of scenic division in the crowd sequences (a brilliant example is the chase episode in Act III, which alternates between crowd sequences and “close-ups” dictated by thematic development in the orchestra). The vocal lines instead defy standard Italian song style; they remain in declamato for long periods according to a great number of suggestions, from “almost spoken” to “spoken low,” “spoken gracefully,” “spoken loudly,” and in many instances are reduced to true recitation with no musical intonation given.

In the economy of the opera as a whole, these declamatory moments function as a means by which to contain Puccini’s more typical style, which in pieces conventionally given over to lyric outbursts (e.g. the three duets: between Minnie and Rance in Act I and the two between Minnie and Johnson) remains more or less restricted to only a select few, very short phrases within the opera’s melodic spectrum, integrated into the underlying dramatic tapestry: one of these is Rance’s phrase “Or per un bacio tuo” in his duet with Minnie, another is Minnie’s “Io non sono che una povera fanciulla” in her first duet with Johnson. Others include the motif of Johnson’s kiss, the paired conclusion (“Dolce vivere e morir”) of the second duet, and Rance’s pseudo-aria “Or piangi tu, o Minnie” in Act III. That’s all , or nearly so.

Johnson’s aria in the last act, “Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano” is consequently the only truly lyric number of the entire score written in the style of Puccini’s earlier melodic mode. By its formal compactness (entirely enclosed within some twenty beats of music) and by its unity of character and adherence to the dramatic situation (the last, most intimate confession of a character on the brink of death), this aria conforms to the happy model of similar pieces such as Mimì’s “Sono andati?” in La Bohème or Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” in Tosca. Within the fragmented stylistic context of Fanciulla, however, “Ch’ella mi creda” represents nothing more than yet another vocal color, that of the fullness of love. The character Johnson, depicted with a captivating charm by his characteristic motif in a ragtime rhythm, stubbornly intent upon showing himself in the conventional role of the tenor, attempts to establish himself this way from his first entrance. A survey of Johnson’s vocal profile, however, shows him to be such only in the decisive moment of conflict with the antagonist Rance, his rival due to social status (the sheriff vs. the bandit) and personal aspirations (the suitor refused by Minnie vs. the man loved and redeemed by means of Minnie’s love).

5. A syncretic perspective

In an interview published in 1911 in the “Gazzetta di Torino,” Puccini exposes the underlying reasoning behind his own poetics at the time of Fanciulla, recalling the persistent vitality of the dramaturgy of Richard Wagner, whom he called “forefather of all contemporary music” provided one knew how to purify it of its intrinsic “adornments” and “exuberances.”

This mention of Wagner is anything but a passing thought, given that Fanciulla is surrounded on many levels by a series of Wagnerian suggestions. There is a narrative line which brings about moral redemption, as in Parsifal, although cleansed of mystic incrustations and of the Wagnerian mythology of purity: in Minnie’s harsh analysis, the men remain “outlaws and cheats”: the “gamemaster” Rance, the true “outlaw” Johnson/Ramerrez, the “mistress of the flophouse and of gambling” Minnie. There is a trace of the union of Sigmund e Siglinde in the embrace of the two protagonists who ignore the gusts of wind that batter their shack, but it is only fleeting. There is the evocation of Minnie in Valkyrie’s clothing the instant she bursts onto the scene of Johnson’s hanging, “on horseback, scantily clad, her hair to the wind,” and heralded by a “savage cry.” And there are musical reverberations that permeate a few key moments in the score. One of these affects Minnie’s motif – the vibrant and fortissimo exclamation that announces her first appearance in Act I – which, due to its beginning interval on a descending seventh as well as its melodic contour, alludes to the leitmotif associated with Gutrune in Gotterdämmerung and, in particular, to the variant thereof categorized in guides (from Hans von Wolzogen onward) as the “theme of the treachery of love.” Another reflects the reiterated use of the opening of the initial motif found in Tristan und Isolde: a commonplace Wagnerism in Italian opera, widely adopted by Puccini in Manon Lescaut, was the use of the related Tristan Chord. The four notes of which it is composed (a, f, e, d-sharp in Wagner’s original), currently classified as a “theme of suffering”, in Fanciulla appear for the first time in the final duet of Act I, at the point when Johnson attempts to mollify Minnie, who is bent on defending the miners’ gold with her life (“Oh, non temete, nessuno ardirà!”). After which, in Act II, with a harmonization structured on the tritone and a messa in sequenza in the ostinato form which reinforces the original intention of the sorrowful motif, it orchestrally highlights Minnie’s anguish over Johnson’s fate: the episode in which she succors the wounded Johnson (“Su, su, su, presto! Su, salvati!…”), the scene in which she pleads with the merciless Rance (“Aspettate, non può”), the dramatic, final bet (“Una partita a poker!”) until the act closes, in the convulsive moment of exuberance mixed with a desperate cry (“Ah! È mio”).

Beyond these Wagnerian borrowings, as numerous as conceptually unsystematic, a number of other, varied inspirations are found in the score of Fanciulla. One of these is a reformulation of the musical theme of the kiss from Verdi’s Otello in the wispy orchestral arrangement of Johnson’s thrice-requested bacio (II, 25). Another is the atmospheric effect achieved by means of a descending pattern of two tones separated by a fifth, in Act I (from 26 on). Here, as in the Barrière d’enfer (Quadro III) of La Bohème, this is a musical painting of falling snow, this time adapted to the swirling violence of a bitter and hostile En plein air. A final inspiration is a moment of recycling in the final act, in which the sequence of musical reprises is analogous to that found in the fourth quadro of La Bohème.

All in all, in Fanciulla the reformulation and recontextualization of heterogeneous elements seems to be a strategy used quite widely, involving narrative aspects, dramatic situations, musical materials and the structural groundwork for the flow of the music. It should not be interpreted as a simple exhibition of a taste for quotation. It may well be, in keeping with his tendency to compose the drama in differentiated linguistic blocks, to modify the style of stage music in primary narrative elements, and to reduce the Puccinian lyric register into a serviceable musical color, these citations are one of the fundamental terms of the transition from a dramatic style coherently concentrated on the representation of the “pathetic,” the tragic as a desperate feeling of the self, which requires full emotional involvement (following the model of Madama Butterfly), to a dramatic style articulated in its presentation of the “characteristic,” in which a pluristylism and an emotional self-distancing from the subject are essential. A stance that the finale, in its final “dissolve,” with its reprise of the choral melody from Jack Wallace’s nostalgic ballad, seals in a sort of brief tableau, in which the feeling of general commotion is nearly petrified by the total absence of lyric emphasis.

Marginal notes , d’Amico would rightly say. Nevertheless, far more than the coming together of opera, cowboy shows (the opera typically uses live horses on stage) and the nascent Western genre in American film (already embodied in the first decade of the twentieth century by more than a dozen titles), these musical and dramatic annotations written with discontinuity on the margins of the drama mark the beginnings of a new “code” in Puccini’s twentieth century style. [7] A setting in which Fanciulla, doubtless a work less compact than the short operas of Il Trittico and less polished as far as dramatic-musical makeup is concerned than Turandot, is a high-point in at least one aspect: its happy ending is a “metamorphosis” of character which follows a scheme that the difficulty of composition and Puccini’s limited lifespan would prevent him from accomplishing in the fairytale-mythical context of his last great masterpiece.

By Virgilio Bernardoni. **
Translated by Jonathan Hiller.
Edited by Gary L. Hoffman.

[1] In particular, see Ashbrook, William and Harold Powers, Puccini’s Turandot. The End of the Great Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

[2] D’Amico, Fedele. “Naturalismo e decadentismo in Puccini e La Fanciulla del West.” L’albero del bene e del male: naturalismo e decadentismo in Puccini, ed. Jacopo Pellegrini. Lucca, Italy: Maria Pacini Fazzi Editore, 2000. pp. 18, 124.

[3] Letter to Valentino Soldani from 28 June, 1904, in Carteggi pucciniani, ed. Eugenio Gara. Milan: Ricordi, 1958. pp. 277-8, n. 387.

[4] Letter to Giulio Ricordi, 26 August 1907. ibid p. 353, n. 521.

[5] Interview of Puccini by Giacinto Cattini, in the “Gazzetta di Torino”, LII, 11 Novembre 1911, p. 3.

[6] Atlas, Allan W. “Belasco and Puccini: ‘Old Dog Tray’ and the Zuni Indians” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 362-398.

[7] Girardi, Michele. “Il finale de ‘La Fanciulla del West’ e alcuni problemi di codice,” Opera & Libretto II [Fondazione Giorgio Cini/Studi di Musica Veneta], 1993, pp. 417-37.

* [Editor's Note: This is Psalm 50 in the Vulgate, which is commonly referred to as “The Miserere” (or Prayer of Repentance). This Psalm is David’s confession and plea for mercy after the prophet Nathan rebukes him for committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband, Uriah, murdered.]

[** Prof. Bernardoni is a member of the Dipartimento di Lettere, arti e multimedialità, Università deglistudi di Bergamo. This essay is translated and published with the permission of the author from the original entitled “Le ‘tinte’ della Fanciulla” (2001) (available at]

image= image_description=La Fanciulla del West product=yes product_title=The ‘Colors’ of La Fanciulla product_by=By Virgilio Bernardoni. Translated by Jonathan Hiller. Edited by Gary L. Hoffman product_id=Prof. Bernardoni is a member of the Dipartimento di Lettere, arti e multimedialità, Università deglistudi di Bergamo. This essay is translated and published with the permission of the author from the original entitled “Le ‘tinte’ della Fanciulla” (2001) (available at
Posted by Gary at 8:21 PM

PUCCINI: La Fanciulla del West — Firenze 1954

Music composed by Giacomo Puccini. Libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini after David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West (1905).

First Performance: 10 December 1910, Metropolitan Opera House, New York.

Principal Roles:
Minnie Soprano
Jack Rance, sheriff Baritone
Dick Johnson/Ramerrez, bandit Tenor
Nick, bartender at the Polka saloon Tenor
Ashby, Wells Fargo agent Bass
Sonora Baritone
Trin, a miner Tenor
Sid, a miner Baritone
Bello, a miner Baritone
Harry, a miner Tenor
Joe a miner Tenor
Happy a miner Baritone
Larkens, a miner Bass
Billy Jackrabbit, a Red Indian Bass
Wowkle, his squaw Mezzo-Soprano
Jake Wallace, a travelling camp minstrel Baritone
José Castro (mestizo), one of Ramerrez’s band Bass
The Pony Express riders Tenor

Setting: A camp of miners at the foot of the Cloudy Mountains during the California Gold Rush (1849-50).


The plot is concerned with rather melodramatic happenings during the days of the California Gold Rush. While remaining true, in general, to his usual melodious style, Puccini has adapted his score to a rapidly moving conversational dialogue. He also shows that he was aware of the musical progress of the times by his use of consecutive and unresolved seventh chords somewhat in the manner of Ravel, and in the employment of Debussian augmented triads. Moreover, for the sake of local color, he introduces melodies and rhythms characteristic of the South and Southwest.


Act I

Ashby, agent of the Wells Fargo Company, enters the “Polka” bar-room, and, joining the miners there assembled, says that he is close on the track of Ramerrez, chief of the band of Mexican outlaws who have recently committed a big robbery. The sheriff, Jack Rance, in talking with the men, boasts of his own love affair with the “girl,” Minnie, and says that he is going to marry her. One of the miners disputes his claim and a brawl results. Minnie herself enters and stops it. Minnie runs the “Polka,” for she is the orphaned child of the founder of this establishment, and also acts as mother and guardian angel to the miners and cowboys who frequent the place. When Rance proposes to her in his crude fashion, she spurns him and holds him at bay with a revolver. A stranger enters and gives his name as Dick Johnson of Sacramento. The sheriff is suspicious concerning him, but Minnie takes his part, saying that she has met him before. Johnson is in reality none other than the hunted Ramerrez — he has come to rob the saloon. Unaware of this, Minnie recalls with Dick the time they first met and fell in love with one another. The men all go in search of Ramerrez, leaving with Minnie their gold. She declares that if anyone is to steal the gold he must do so over her dead body. Johnson has become more and more enamoured of her and relinquishes his plan of robbery; now he admires her courage. She invites him to visit her in her cabin when the miners shall have returned.

Act II

Johnson and Minnie meet at her “shack” and sing of their love. Suddenly shots are heard outside in the darkness — the men are again searching for Ramerrez. Not wanting to be found with her lover, she conceals John¬son, then admits the men. They are hunting, they say, for Dick Johnson, who is none other than Ramerrez. Minnie declines their offered protection and they leave. Then she turns upon Johnson with the revelations that she has just heard. Dick acknowledges their truth, but goes on to tell how he was compelled by fate to become a bandit; since meet¬ing her he has resolved to give up his old life, and had prayed, in vain, that she would never know of his past. The tense dramatic atmosphere is reflected in somber chords in the orchestra.

But Minnie cannot forgive him for having deceived her after confessing his love. She sends him out into the night. A moment later shots are heard, Minnie runs to the door, opens it and drags in Johnson, seriously wounded. She hides him in a loft up under the roof. The sheriff soon enters, hot on the trail. Minnie has almost overcome his suspicions when a drop of blood falls from the loft, revealing the wounded man. Knowing that the sheriff is a desperate gambler, Minnie, as a last resort, offers to play a game of poker with him, the stakes to be her own hand and Johnson’s life, or else her own and the prisoner’s freedom. Minnie cheats, wins the game and her lover.


Johnson, nursed back to life by Minnie, is about to be hanged by Ashby’s men. He asks one last request. Let her believe that he had gained his freedom and gone away to live the nobler life she had taught him. He touchingly apostrophizes her as the “star of his wasted life.” This last request of Johnson’s is sung to the most famous melody in the opera (“Ch’ella mi creda libero”).

Just as the lynchers are about to draw the rope taut, Minnie rushes in on horseback. She at first holds the crowd at bay with her drawn revolver, then appeals to them eloquently, reminding them of her faithful care for their needs; they should not fail her now. The “boys” relent, and in spite of Rance’s protests, release the prisoner. Johnson and Minnie bid them farewell and go away together to begin life anew.

[Introduction and Synopsis adapted from The Victor Book of the Opera (10th ed. 1929)]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco audio=yes first_audio_name=Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): La Fanciulla del West
WinAMP or VLC first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=G. Puccini: La Fanciulla del West product_by=Ashby: Vito Susca; Bello: Virgilio Carbonari; Billy Jackrabbit: Paolo Washington; Dick Johnson: Mario del Monaco; Happy: Agostino Ferrin; Harry: Valiano Natali; Jack Rance: Giangiacomo Guelfi; Jake Wallace: Giorgio Tozzi; Jim Larkens: Giorgio Giorgetti; Joe: Enzo Guagni; José Castro: Mario Frosini; Minnie: Eleanor Steber; Nick: Piero di Palma; Sid: Lido Pettini; Sonora: Enzo Viaro; Trin: Brenno Ristori; Un postiglione: Alberto Lotti-Canini; Wowkle: Laura Didier Gambardella. Orchestra and Chorus of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Dimitri Mitropoulos, conductor.
Live performance, 15 June 1954, Florence.
Posted by Gary at 8:20 PM

November 21, 2008

Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Opera House Zürich

Don Basilio turns out to be a good fit for an artist once so formidable in the darker roles of the operatic literature. His late-career voice has a gruffness that lends itself well to caricature, which is about all this particular production seems suited for.

Luigi Perego designed, for director Grischa Asagaroff, a revolving platform of three sections, all built from oversized versions of a Spanish lady’s fan. Just to make sure we haven’t missed the point, the scrim is also in the shape of a fan. The time has been bumped up to the early-20th century, with Figaro arriving in a tandem motorcycle, and the men of the chorus apparently fresh from some sort of fashion show for hats: there are fedoras, berets, and Italian straw boaters. It is all considerably clever, fairly attractive - and ultimately, dramatically irrelevant. The entire production comes across as over-designed, over-directed, and under-inspired. Take a look at the Metropolitan Opera’s recent Barbiere, one of the productions from the first year of the movie theater filmcasts, to see a production with plenty of ideas that still manages to feel alive and fresh.

An able cast plays along, but no one really has the charisma to charge the evening with some excitement. Vesselina Kasarova sings a sexy Rosina, with smoothly purred low notes and creditable high ones. Despite being a very attractive lady, she is strangely uninvolving on stage. It doesn’t help matters that she has more spark with her Figaro, a decent Manual Lanza, than with her Almaviva, the bland Reinaldo Macias. At final curtain, Carlos Chausson earns a sizeable ovation to an audience grateful for his solid delivery of a comically wicked Bartolo, for once almost a creditable suitor for his ward Rosina.

But it is Elizabeth Rae Magnuson, as the put-upon maid-servant Berta, who stands out, appealing in her acting and singing with sweet clarity. If only conductor Nello Santi had conducted the music to her big number with a bit more urgency.

EuroArts stretches the opera onto two discs, probably unnecessarily. For once, the subtitles appear to be not only error-free, but admirably natural and communicative.

If OperaToday readers are looking for a contemporary version of Barbiere, once more, the recent Met version with Florez, Mattei, and Di Donato can be highly recommended.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Gioacchino Rossini:Il Barbiere di Siviglia

product=yes producttitle=Gioacchino Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia productby=Vesselina Kasarova, Manuel Lanza, Reinaldo Macias, Carlos Chausson, Orchestra and Choir Opera House Zurich. Nello Santi, conductor. Directed for stage by Grischa Asagaroff. productid=EuroArts 20 5124 9 [2DVDs] price=$27.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 4:11 PM

November 20, 2008

MAYR: L’amor coniugale

From the 2004 season comes this performance of Simon Mayr’s L’amor coniugale, and it is a fascinating document in many ways — with the rather considerable caveat that the singing doesn’t rise to the inspired levels of either the score or the performance of the Württemberg Philharmonic Orchestra under Christopher Franklin.

A woman adopts male disguise in order to enter the household of the warden of a prison, where her husband is being held. When the warden receives orders from an evil superior to execute the prisoner, the woman must take action to save her husband’s life. Mayr was not the first to use a libretto adopted from Jean Nicolas Bouilly’s 1798 play Léonore, ou L’Amour conjugal, but he did precede the opera that gained this tale a permanent place in the literature, Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The booklet essay explains that a trendy interest in all things Polish at the time convinced Mayr to set the story there, and the political subtext was ditched in favor of a conventional melodramatic twist. In this version, Moroski, the equivalent of Beethoven’s Pizarro, puts away Zeliska’s husband Amorveno (Leonore and Florestan) out of unrequited love for her.

While as a composer Mayr certainly doesn’t command the originality and power of Beethoven, his score possesses drama where needed and great charm elsewhere. The opening sinfonia plays like a lost movement from a Schubert symphony (Schubert also having been an admirer of Rossini). Although his melodies don’t have that inspiration which plants a tune, once heard, forever into one’s head, Mayr had uncommon gifts as an orchestrator. He especially favors individual wind instruments to wind their way around the vocal lines in arias.

The most fascinating juxtaposition between Mayr’s creation and Beethoven’s comes halfway through the one-act work, when the scene changes to the cell where Amorveno languishes. As Beethoven would for Florestan in the dungeon, Mayr begins with a scene-setting instrumental prelude of dark, minor-keyed textures, and Amorveno’s musings also move from despair to a burst of manic elation at the imagined sight of his wife. Is Beethoven’s creation the greater work? Absolutely, but Mayr’s deserves a listen as well.

The impact of this recording would probably be even greater with different lead singers. Both the Zeliska (Cinzia Rizzone) and Amorveno (Francescantonio Bille) have modestly appealing voices with restricted ranges. When their duet reaches ecstatic heights, the two singers make some truly uncomfortable sounds together. As Peters the jailer and Moroski, Dariusz Machej and Giovanni Bellavia make more creditable contributions.

Translated from the German by Neil Coleman into occasionally awkward English, Thomas Lindner’s booklet essay provides ample information on Mayr and the opera. Break out the magnifying glass, however, if one doesn’t want a headache provoked by Naxos’s typically tiny type. The synopsis is not tied to the track listing by numbers, unfortunately, and Naxos only offers an Italian libretto online.

Better vocal performances would have made this a very highly recommended set. As it is, anyone at all curious about a predecessor of Fidelio, or a fan of Rossini-era music, should definitely take a listen.

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=Johann Simon Mayr: L’amor coniugale

product=yes producttitle=Johann Simon Mayr: L’amor coniugale productby=Zeliska/Malvino (Cinzia Rizzone), Amorveno (Francescantonio Bille), Floreska (Tatjana Charalgina), Peters (Dariusz Machej), Moroski (Giovanni Bellavia), Ardelao (Bradley Trammell). Wurttemberg Philharmonic Orchestra, Christopher Franklin (cond.) productid=Naxos 8.660198-99 [2CDs] price=$16.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 11:51 AM

November 19, 2008

Matilde di Shabran at Covent Garden

Musically and structurally, it is unusual; not only does the first act last over two hours, with a full forty-five minutes before either of the major principals put in an appearance, but there's barely a solo aria in the piece; the score consists almost entirely of duets and ensembles. At Covent Garden over a decade later, the prospect of such an opera (mounted as a star vehicle for Flórez) was enough to provoke a certain amount of trepidation despite the house being sold out months in advance.

But the opera's principal message is a familiar one: no man stands a chance when pitted against a talented and resourceful woman. It's an idea reminiscent of two of the composer's better-known operas, L'italiana in Algeri and Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Matilde drives the point home so unequivocally that rather than feeling formulaic it comes across at times as a Rossinian self-parody. The characters are two-dimensional and limited in range, especially Flórez's character, the tyrannical Corradino whose motiveless misogyny is such that he barricades himself away from the world to avoid having to deal with women, but who melts like a lovesick puppy the second he's confronted by the feisty Matilde. There's plenty of catty business between Matilde and the Contessa d'Arco (the noblewoman with her own legitimate claim on Corradino), pathos from Corradino's young prisoner Edoardo and the father who is searching for him, and a convenient ending made possible by the verbal cunning of an omnipresent itinerant poet called Isidoro.

As Matilde comprehensively conquers the war-hungry Corradino, so the young Polish soprano, Aleksandra Kurzak, upstaged the mega-star tenor whose availability was responsible for the opera's rescue from obscurity. Kurzak brought an air of confident modernity to Rossini's heroine, with a pert, confident stage presence and pinpoint accuracy in the fiendish coloratura which she delivered with a crystalline tone. The flexibility in Flórez's upper register was as show-stopping as ever, but the small size of his voice was shown up by the strength of the female leads (not just Kurzak, but Enkelejda Shkosa as a fiery Contessa d'Arco) and he sounded a little dry at times. His music just doesn't have the same potential as the women's; he's not even destined to be the voice that stays in the memory at the end of the night, as Matilde concludes with a triumphant rondo a show in which Corradino has had no real solo at all.

Matilde_723.pngCarlo Lepore as Ginardo, Alfonso Antoniozzi as Isidoro and Juan Diego Flórez as Corradino [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera House]

In the trouser-role of Edoardo, Vesselina Kasarova was disappointing, her top register sounding disjointed from the rest of her voice, though it's always a warm sound, and the reunion with father Raimondo (Mark Beesley) was very affecting – a serious sub-plot in an opera which is otherwise a sharp comedy. Alfonso Antoniozzi was endearing as the poet Isidoro, and those in the minor roles all contributed to a surprisingly well-integrated ensemble performance considering the opera's hybrid pedigree.

Mario Martone's production was constrained by Sergio Tramonti's austere set design, consisting of two enormous concentric spiral staircases snaking up into the flies, and a ramp leading up to an aperture at the back. Though it gave three dimensions to the movement on stage, it was excessively limiting, not to mention colourless. It was left to the principal singers to maintain interest throughout a long evening, a feat which they more than achieved with snappy assistance from Carlo Rizzi in the pit. But really – with this classy a vocal cast – it would have worked just as well as a concert.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image= image_description=Matilde di Shabran ROH 2008 [Photo by Catherine Ashmore] product=yes product_title=G. Rossini: Matilde di Shabran product_by=Aleksandra Kurzak (Matilde Di Shabran), Juan Diego Florez (Corradino), Mark Beesley (Raimondo), Vesselina Kasarova (Edoardo), Marco Vinco (Aliprando), Alfonso Antoniozzi (Isidoro), Enkelejda Shkosa (Contessa D'Arco), Carlo Lepore (Ginardo), Robert Anthony Gardiner (Egoldo), Bryan Secombe (Rodrigo). The Royal Opera. Carlo Rizzi, conductor. product_id=Above: Aleksandra Kurzak as Matilde di Shabran and Juan Diego Flórez as Corradino [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
Posted by Gary at 10:32 AM

Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Academy of Music

Neil Fisher [Times Online, 19 November 2008]

Something must be behind the sudden resurgence of Humperdinck’s opera, which has already had two major outings this year, from Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne. Now Covent Garden are knee-deep in rehearsals for their new production, due early next month.

Posted by Gary at 9:42 AM

Hölderin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 18 November 2008]

Presumably there was no curse upon the Berlin Staatsoper, but there might as well have been one. When Peter Mussbach penned the libretto for Peter Ruzicka’s new opera, Hölderlin, the Intendant of the Berlin Staatsoper meant to stage it himself. Six months before the planned opening, political ructions led to Mussbach’s ousting.

Posted by Gary at 9:27 AM

Revisiting Rossini's 'L'italiana in Algeri'

By David Patrick Stearns [Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 November 2008]

The Opera Company of Philadelphia on Friday revived its lovable, storybook production of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri. It was first seen in 2000, both at the Academy of Music and on PBS, and was kept on ice presumably until a cast could be assembled that wouldn’t compare badly with the earlier one, which contained the then-up-and-coming Stephanie Blythe and Juan Diego Florez.

Posted by Gary at 8:44 AM

November 18, 2008

Doctor Atomic and Arjuna’s Dilemma

I thought of this during one of the many patches in John Adams’s new opera, Doctor Atomic, when nothing much was going on and there was plenty of time for gathering wool. But the particular buildup of suspense I reflected on was Mozart’s, in the Act I finale of his last opera, La Clemenza di Tito. Sesto (you may remember) has set fire to the Capitol and stabbed the emperor, his great friend, at the request of the snubbed Vitellia – who has changed her mind, but too late. The orchestra depicts the rising flames of the catastrophe, aided by the chorus. The chorus sings no words, only “Ah!,” a cry of horror, in various tones – we may, perhaps, assume their feelings are too shocked for words, or that the distance and the flames are turning their words into undifferentiated noise. In the foreground, Sesto is cursing himself for his hideous deed. If we have read the synopsis, we know that in fact he has slain the wrong man, and Emperor Titus is just fine (and will remain clement). No matter – the alarm of the crowd, the insanity of the act, the emotions of the evildoer occupy our thoughts. The music rises and falls, and we are at the edge of our seats: what will happen next?

There was very little suspense at Doctor Atomic. The bomb will be tested, it will be a success, the earth will not explode due to chain reaction, the bomb will then be dropped on Hiroshima, the war will end, the world will be shocked and uneasy. We all know that. It is up to the composer, the librettist (Peter Sellars), the director (Penny Woolcock), the conductor (Alan Gilbert), the singers to make us feel the tension of unanswered questions: what will happen next? To whom will things happen? (Because these characters stand in for us, who have been haunted by the bomb all our lives.)

They do not achieve this.

DOCTOR_ATOMIC_scene_1540a.pngA scene from John Adams’s Doctor Atomic. [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
There is, in fact, a great deal of musical interest going on during Doctor Atomic – in the pit. There are genuinely intriguing sounds, developments, inspired innovations of percussion, melodies that spin and writhe and tingle. As a symphonic meditation on nuclear energy and its destructive implications, this would be an evening worth spending. Adams’s purely instrumental music is often impressive, sometimes deeply feeling. As the accompaniment for stage action and a work of vocal theater, however, Doctor Atomic let me down.

The libretto was certainly at fault – it’s very difficult to create poetic, metaphorical feeling on the grandiose level on which this work pompously and preachily insists if the words you hear remain sullenly, risibly pedestrian. Bets on the amount of radiation. Nervous but hardly profound discussions of the implications of the weapon. Pros and cons of dieting. A sonnet by John Donne that might be a step in the right direction if it had anything to do with the action, and if the setting were at all appropriate or at least appealing. (How on earth can anyone make a New Mexico sky at sunset, or during a thunderstorm, dull?) A vision from the Bhagavad Gita and a lullaby by a Native American seem designed merely to cover extra cultural bases – and the lullaby, insistently chanted to keep us mindful of the coming catastrophe (well, Native American songs often are one or two lines, repeatedly chanted) does not build tension – it gives evidence that tension is what they creators of this work would like to provide. But, words and music, they have no idea how to go about it.

DOCTOR_ATOMIC_scene_Finley_.pngA scene from John Adams’s Doctor Atomic with Gerald Finley (center) as J. Robert Oppenheimer. [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]

The voices are well produced, but they are deployed as electronic instruments might be: as notes on a page, not as instruments of emotional utility. Everyone in this opera is ordinary but no one is human. Even the gods of Wagner and Gluck get to be human. (I am told Gerard Finley’s personal agonizing, as Oppenheimer, was poignant on screen, but in the house, mediated by microphone, it made very little effect. Sasha Cook sounded good, but whether her character, Kitty Oppenheimer, was agonized by her marriage or the bomb or wondering what to pay the babysitter was not apparent from her vocalises.)

The staging is certainly at fault – like the libretto, it harps on the inanity of the human activity that led to such profound consequences, without illuminating either one. If you’re going to symbolize world-catastrophe, you have to make it personal, but Sellars and Adams cannot make their inventions live. They can’t even make them explode. Oh for a Mozart. No, there aren’t many Mozarts – oh for a Ponchielli or a Meyerbeer, journeymen who knew how the machine worked, how to put catastrophe on stage, how to make it personal and real to a large, disparate audience. How about a hunchbacked scientist who invents a bomb out of vendetta on his society and discovers too late that it has torn the skin off his own beloved daughter? That might be an opera. If you could find a Verdi to compose it.

Instead we get the Oppenheimers’ marital problems, a failure to communicate, though thanks to the sound system, heaven knows they are loud enough. This scientist represents this argument, that scientist represents another one, and none of them are either human or archetypal enough to be superhuman. Just cardboard. One could forgive that if their music was interesting, but the vocal lines are uniformly un.

At the Met last spring, Satyagraha, with its diorama staging and intentionally incomprehensible libretto (in Sanskrit), was a vocal drama of real excitement and beauty, with metaphorical actions giving access to the creators’ meditations on significant philosophical questions. There was no suspense in Doctor Atomic, and nothing in the debate around the atomic bomb was brought to life in it.

Arjuna’s Dilemma is another recent opera based, in part, on the text known as the Bhagavad Gita, the most famous (and philosophical) episode from the Mahabharata, the longest epic ever composed. With Satyagraha and Doctor Atomic, this is the third opera I’ve seen this year that drew on the Gita – which has become the Orlando Furioso of modern opera, as the Gita itself and its characters grow as familiar to opera-goers as Ariosto’s characters were to music lovers of Handel and Vivaldi’s day.

_DSC8038.pngBadal Roy on tablas (foreground) and John Kelly as Krishna (center) from Arjuna’s Dilemma [Photo by Stephanie Berger]
In the Gita, Prince Arjuna, driven (with his four brothers) from their kingdom by some sneaky cousins, is about to take part in a murderous battle with the usurpers, and has doubts about the whole thing – killing, being killed, slaying all those pals he used to hang with, spreading mayhem through the countryside and no doubt into the heart of many a widow and orphan and bereft parent. What’s it all for? His charioteer, however, assures him that life goes on (and everyone who dies will be born again anyway), that he’s just one cog in the great big wheel of life which will cease to turn if people stop to question their proper position. Of course he’s no mere charioteer – he’s none other than the god Krishna, and vouchsafes the prince a vision of the universe as symbolized by his ineffable self. (This is the bit that Oppenheimer saw in Doctor Atomic.) Arjuna, convinced and enlightened, fights on. (Where was Krishna when Achilles had his far less worthy doubts in the Iliad? – you may well wonder.)

Douglas Cuomo has turned the Gita into an opera, making use of amplified voices, Indian percussion, cellos, saxophones, a bass clarinet from the Western tradition, background film, foreground choreography, titles to translate the Sanskrit and English text, all the bells and whistles of modern opera-creation as deployed, also, by John Adams at the Met. The techno wonders are all here (in BAM’s self-consciously decrepit Harvey Theater, a credible scene of battle), and the grandeur of the presentation matches the grandeur of the conception.

But the experience of Arjuna’s Dilemma is a very different one from the experience at the Met. Partly this is a matter of length – Arjuna is about 70 minutes, no intermission – and partly this is a matter of lack of pretension. The story is a wisdom text not an action text, a central prescription for the life well-lived in Hindu terms, a revelation of the god, but one does not feel preached at, manipulated, in this work – and there is no attempt to tie the extraordinary to the mundane in the way that a troubled marriage and the quotidian concerns of the scientists totally failed to achieve in the gaudier piece.

_SBP3113.png(l-r) Anita Johnson, Bora Yoon, Suzan Hanson, Kirsten Sollek, and Barbara Rearick from Arjuna’s Dilemma [Photo by Stephanie Berger]

Most of all, Arjuna’s Dilemma has been created by a composer who trusts sound, a few fine voices and a few fine virtuoso instrumentalists, to reveal his message in the same way that the great opera composers trust the sounds will bring to us. The singers’ art (and the instrumentalists’ art) is the central focus of the work. The message is not made explicit and ordinary, humdrum, as Peter Sellars’s text did in Doctor Atomic; its meaning comes to us subtly, open to our different levels of understanding, on the beauty of the human voice, of melody working sinuously to take us into trance states while we meditate, line by line, on the brief story being told us. Tony Boutté impersonates Arjuna, dancer John Kelly (who has also choreographed the piece) plays – but Humayun Khan sings – Krishna, advising, consoling, manipulating, guiding him. Their words are taken up, repeated, sung in canon, tossed about, harmonized by a chorus of five women, and the beauty of the sounds they make expresses a message never made explicit. We draw our own moral. The instrumentalists, too, are virtuosos, and take part in the dialogue. No message goes on too long before it evolves into a new manner of presentation, giving us in this brief space some hint of the breadth of the message, the universality of it.

The piece concludes without a gimmick: they have said what they wanted to say, we have taken in what our individual senses and understanding have prepared us to take. A tale has been told. We have not been told what to feel. We feel for ourselves.

Arjuna’s Dilemma is a modern opera, a tale told through singing.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Sasha Cooke as Kitty Oppenheimer and Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams's "Doctor Atomic." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera product=yes product_title=John Adams: Doctor Atomic
J. Robert Oppenheimer (Gerard Finley); Kitty Oppenheimer (Sasha Cooke); Teller (Richard Paul Fink); Wilson (Thomas Glenn); General Groves (Eric Owens); Hubbard (Earle Patriarco); Pasqualita (Meredity Arwady). The Metropolitan Opera. Conducted by Alan Gilbert.

Douglas Cuomo: Arjuna’s Dilemma
Arjuna (Tony Boutté); Krishna (John Kelly/Humayun Khan); Ensemble (Suzan Hanson, Anita Johnson, Barbara Rearick, Kirsten Sollek, Bora Yoon); Saxophone (Bob Franceschini); Tablas (Badal Roy). Conducted by Alan Johnson. Stage Director: Robin Guarino. Next Wave Festival, BAM Harvey Theater. product_by=Above: Sasha Cooke as Kitty Oppenheimer and Gerald Finley as J. Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic. [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera] product_id=
Posted by Gary at 2:19 PM

November 17, 2008

Opera in Germany

Juicy Three Oranges, a Dutchman that doesn’t fly and Boris in the boondocks

On the heels of Hitler, Germans, eager to be known again as the people of poets and thinkers — Dichter und Denker — flattered themselves with a joke. Give Germans the choice — it went — between going to Heaven and going to a lecture about Heaven, they would choose the latter.

Berlin_Oranges.jpgThe joke wouldn’t get many laughs today — at least not in Berlin, where the longest at the moment are neither for Heaven nor a lecture about it, but for Madame Tussaud’s wax museum that recently opened on Unter den Linden in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate.

Nonetheless the ability of Germans to ferret out profundity astonishes. Take, for example, the production of Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges now on stage at the Komische Oper here. It’s an evening of fun and fluff welcome among stagings that leave one intellectually exhausted from trying to outguess directors who bring supposedly new insights to well-know works. But then turn to the KO program book and you’ll learn that Three Oranges is really an essay on the fate of theater in the still-young Soviet Union.

Prokofiev turned his back on the fruits of revolution in 1918. He wrote Oranges in Paris, and it was premiered in Chicago in 1921, when famed soprano Mary Garden ran the opera there. (“She was never around,” sighed Prokofiev. “She was off working on her own roles.”) It would thus seem to have little to do with Russia.

In 1917, however, Vsevelod Meyerhold, the great genius of Russian theater, had done a version of Carlo Gozzi’s commedia dell’arte L’amore delle tre melarance that provided Prokofiev with his libretto and led the composer to make of it an opera that took into account the demands that people made on the theater — and that the theater in a new society committed to the arts could reasonably make on them.

Knowing this brought depth, of course, to KO production, which, on the other hand, was a total success simply as joyous music theater very well done. Indeed, it’s not surprising that the KO is where Berliners go for an evening of great entertainment that does not perplex the mind.

This production, seen on October 26, further had a note of poignancy about it, for it is the brain child of KO general director Andreas Homoki, who is about to leave the company. Homoki has elevated the KO to the level of excellence that it knew under its founding director Walter Felsenstein, the man who laid the foundation of modern music theater in Germany after the war. It was Homoki who brought to the KO the quality and prestige that caused Opernwelt, Germany’s top opera magazine, to name the company “opera of the year” two seasons ago.

Leading roles in Oranges were sung by Finnur Bjornson (Prince), Carsten Sabrowski (King) and Aurelia Hajek and Renatus Mesá’s (Good and Bad Magicians, respectively). Stefan Blunier conducted an impressive orchestra. Meyerhold, by the way, gave up on his hopes for an artists’ paradise in the USSR and killed himself.

Karl Marx did not die along with the demise of Germany’s sometimes violent New Left in the late years of the past century; he’s just been hiding out in the wings of Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, secure in the knowledge that his day would come again. And with Capitalism teetering on the brink, it may indeed now have come.

Proving furthermore that the arts are ahead of politics, Marx’s resuscitation was anticipated by the production of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman that debuted in June at this largest of Berlin’s three opera houses. This is the work of Tatjana Gürbaca, yet another director rooted in the theatrical theories of Bert Brecht and his major disciple in the world of music theater Ruth Berghaus. Gürbaca saw what was coming and that left her no time for wind and waves — or for ships or even a suggestion thereof. She had weightier matters in mind.

Reuter_Hollander_Berlin.pngJohan Reuter as Fliegender Holländer [Photo by Matthias Horn]
Act One plays in a rowdy room that combines bourse, bar and bordello. Father Daland, a shipping tycoon and father of globalization is a capitalist Everyman, ready in his commitment to the market to sell off his daughter Senta to a tough-looking vagrant in bowler and beaver coat.

Things don’t look at all like Norway, and Gürbaca explains in the DO program book that this is Paris, a city that Wagner, on the heels of years of near-starvation there, wanted to see go up in flames because of its capitalist excesses. (In Wagner it’s always Götterdämmerung time somewhere.)

As the act ends Daland rushes off to tell Senta to get her make-up straight, while the unhappy Dutchman collapses in a chair. A chorus member hangs a “Just Married” sign — in English — on him. (Marx lived in England.) Even experienced Luddites would have a hard time figuring what is going on in Act Two, for there’s not a hint that spinning wheels have given way to power looms.

Guerbaca.pngTatjana Gürbaca
One sees rather in a high-tech beauty emporium, where women — under Capitalism always a chief (and cheap) commodity — are getting gussied up at long tables with mirrors. Senta, of course, will have none of this. She’s lost in her dreams about the dark Wanderer savable only through her sacrifice.

Boy friend Erik, whom Senta did after all promise to marry, is more important to Gürbaca than to other directors, for whom he is only an unwelcome stumbling block to be brushed aside after some attractive lines for a budding — or aged — Heldentenor. But Erik is a hunter, a sweat-of-the-brow guy, a well-integrated member of an economic order not involved in the exploitation of others — unless, of course, you happen to be a wild boar. Erik is the real loser here, and — with Gürbaca — we’re all firmly on his side.

The finest moment in this act is when four giggling girls (the giggle is not in the score) push a baby buggy between Senta and the Dutchman in the middle of their big duet. (This is the kind of thing, Brecht would tell us, that makes people think.)

A literally bright moment in the final act — the DO Dutchman is played, as Wagner wished, without intermission — comes when Senta’s bridal veil is burned in the baby carriage. One might as well have fun with the buggy — and the veil, for Senta will have no need for either. After slitting Erik’s throat (“Remember Erik?” Anna Russell might ask), she cuts her own jugular, and the rest of the women do likewise. (Pity perhaps, on the other hand the libretto had earlier speculated — oh suggestive line! — that all these virile he-men seemed not to need women.)

Gürbaca is an obviously bright woman, and one wishes that Alan Greenspan had read the brilliant essays in the DO program book before applauding Dubya’s economic policies. One wishes that what she had in mind with this production worked.

Alas, it doesn’t. It doesn’t work at all, and word about that has gotten around Berlin, for you could have hunted deer in the first balcony on October 25, when the house was half empty. That was a shame, for musically it was a superb evening.

Johan Reuter is austere and awesome Dutchman, and Manuela Uhl, although obvious hired at the end of the opera, an attractive and impressive Senta. Hefty Torsten Kerl — Erik — might well be the next great Heldentenor, and Reinhard Hagen earns high marks as Daland.

Daniel Klagner conducted an ensemble that ranks high in a city that suffers from an excess of great orchestras.

Magdeburg, a city of half a million an easy two-hour train ride from Berlin, all but disappeared from Western sight during its 40 years as an East-German industrial center. Today Magdeburg is eager to attract attention, and a major draw of the city is its ultra-modern 700-seat theater that opened in 1995.

In the States one would expect this to be the venue of a regional company performing three or four operas a year. For the current season Oper Magdeburg has slated five new productions — along with a dozen works already in the repertory.

Of special interest is the company’s staging of Mussorgsky’s original 1869 version of Boris Godounov that premiered on October 24. As the composer intended it, Boris is a straightforward, heavily dramatic work without the glitter and glamour added by Rimsky-Korsakov in the version more popular today.

Magdeburg brought the opera up to date with a modern-dress staging that opened with a 120-voice voice choir lining the sides of the auditorium while Nikitisch, a government official with a strong resemblance to an about-to-be American ex-president manipulated the election of a new czar.

Nikolaus Meer, with a white mane that makes him a Horostovsky look-alike, sang a strong and sympathetic Boris, bringing both beauty and pathos to the opening coronation and the later mad scene. The many supporting roles were well executed in a production marked by careful preparation and close attention to details by Vera Nemirova, a director whose work is respected and Vienna and is about to stage a new Ring in Frankfurt.

Magdeburg music director Francesco Corti conducted an astonishingly impressive orchestra that performs a full season of symphonic concerts as well. A bust in the foyer recalls that early in his career Wagner was Magdeburg’s music director.

Opera Magdeburg is clearly making its mark.

Virtuoso vocalists

In mid-October two of today’s finest singers — Americans both — appeared as soloists with Berlin’s top orchestras in the city’s famous and acoustically perfect Philharmonie: Deborah Polaski and Kelley O’Connor. With the Berliner Staatskapelle and its music director Daniel Barenboim Polaski, for almost two decades the leading incarnation of Wagner’s most dramatic female figures, sang Arnold Schoenberg’s Six Orchestral Songs, Op. 8.

OConnor_01.pngKelley O’Connor
Completed in 1805, before his embrace of atonality, these are the first songs, in which Schoenberg turned from piano to orchestral accompaniment. They further embrace an expressive range that reaches from the late Romanticism of Wagner and Strauss of the opening Natur to the more advanced idiom of the three Petrarch texts that conclude the cycle.

Polaski, who between 1988 and 1998, sang more Brünnhilde’s at the Bayreuth Festival than any other singer since World War Two, is a commanding presence in the concert hall. She delivered the rarely heard songs with full appreciation of their shifting style, benefiting of course from her long collaboration with Barenboim.

It is impossible to put aside sentiment in hearing Peter Lieberson’s five Neruda Songs, for they stand today as the composer’s superb creative act of homage to his late wife Lorraine Hunt. The soprano premiered the songs, a declaration of love that reaches beyond the intimately personal to a universal celebration of this most problematic of human entanglements.

Polaski_01.pngDeborah Polaski
Lieberson discovered the 100 sonnets by Pablo Neruda shortly after meeting Hunt in 1997. She premiered them in 2005 — and died of cancer the following year. Although it might seem an act of trespassing for another vocalist to sing the songs, with her gentle and modest humanity Kelley O’Connor, now the leading interpreter of them, magnifies the act of homage that they originally were.

She sang them last summer at the Aspen Festival with Lieberson in the audience and has repeated them since with the Chicago Symphony under Bernard Haitink, who — due to illness — was replaced on the podium of the Berlin Philharmonic by David Zinman, who had conducted the Aspen performance.

Although one hardly thinks of any singer as closely associated with Spanish music, O’Connor launched her career by creating the role of Federico Garcia Lorca in Osvaldo Golojov’s Ainadamar at Tanglewood in 2003 and then repeating this role around the world in the composer’s later expansion of the work.

O’Connor has a thrillingly rich lower register that is especially well suited to the haunting spirit of both Neruda’s verse and Lieberson’s setting of it, for an anticipation of death is present in both.

Berlin takes Onegin out of the birches

Stravinsky called Eugene Onegin the “most Russian” of Tchaikovsky’s operas, and scholar Vissarion Belinsky viewed the 1879 work as “an encyclopedia of Russian life.” Achim Freyer, director of the Onegin currently on stage at Berlin’s Staatsoper, does not share these opinions. In an essay in the company’s program book he insists that “today St. Petersburg is everywhere” and that this story could now be set in Dubai , out in the country or in Berlin with equal validity. Not everyone agrees, and the current Onegin that — new in September — was the Staatsoper’s major contribution to the 2008 Berlin fall festival, has given rise to a controversy that recalls the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”.

On October 22, however, when the production was on stage for the seventh time this season, no one left the packed hall until uniform applause had declared Freyer’s concept a success. And it was a fine final touch that Daniel Barenboim, the evening’s conductor and music director of the Staatsoper, brought the entire Staatskapelle, his pit band, to the stage to share this approval.

Over-the-top opera productions are the norm in Germany, the land of Regieoper that puts the director totally in charge. Nonetheless Freyer had a hard act to follow in the Onegin new at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera last season. With thoughts of “Brokeback Mountain” obviously in mind Polish director Krzystof Warlikowski, a former assistant of Peter Brook, moved Tchaikovsky’s Russians to the American West. And, viewing the work primarily as the composer’s confrontation with his own homosexuality, Warlikowski focused attention on the close relationship between Onegin and his friend Lensky. (“Close?” Close indeed, for at one point Warlikowski had them in bed together.)

Freyer, about to launch the first “Ring des Nibelungrn” native to Los Angeles, goes in quite another direction. (Long in the wings, Luc Bondy had once been engaged to direct the Los Angeles Opera project.) For Freyer Onegin is rather a summation of the sentiments, sensations and — above all — the melancholy that were the heritage of the 19th century both in Russia and beyond. The director writes of that world as one of “loneliness, longing and boredom, of renunciation and rationality…but always with the hope of love fulfilled as its driving force.” Freyer, now 74 and once a Berlin student of Bert Brecht at his epoch-making (East) Berlin Ensemble, brings the hand of his teacher to rest on Onegin and his age.

Tchaikovsky called Onegin not an opera, but a series of “lyric scenes,” and Freyer treats it as a scenic oratorio. The entire cast is almost always present on a sharply raked empty stage; each stands alone, and they all face the audience. There is no direct exchange between them. Their loneliness and isolation cries out. Occasional wooden chairs — sometimes suspended in the air — are the only props. Costumes suggesting current dress are soiled white, and grease-painted faces are white with exaggerated facial features. Taking a cue perhaps from the slow-motion choreography of Robert Wilson, characters stay almost entirely in one place, restricting motion to arm and hand gestures.

The art of mime is heavily involved, and as Lensky Rolando Villazon is a Marcel Marceau look-alike. Huge eyes recall the once overly popular paintings by Margaret Keane.

Americans, inexperienced in such experimentation, would have a difficult time with this “Onegin.” Brecht, however, would have loved it, for it is a masterpiece of his theater of alienation, in which Freyer has opened a critical distance between stage and audience to fight what Brecht called the “culinary” theater of illusion that draws the spectator into the drama on stage. This is theater for the thinking man out to change the world.

Central to this approach is the primacy of the text, which makes clear that — despite the title — it’s Tatiana who is the central figure of “Onegin.” And in Anna Samuli, who in four seasons with the Staatsoper has made Violetta and Donna Anna signature roles, Freyer has a near-ideal Tatiana, youthful, but with a voice that despite its power made what Onegin calls her “chaste love” credible. Samuli was Barenboim’s Tatiana when he conducted Onegin with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in2007.

Things were complicated at the October 22 performance, when Villazon, slated to sing Lensky, was ill. He appeared before the performance, explained the situation in impeccable German and announced that Serghei Khomov would sing the role from the side of the stage, while he participated as actor only. (The illusion of a singing Villazon would have benefited from lip-singing on the tenor’s part.)

Onegin_Berlin.pngA scene from Eugene Onegin [Photo by Monika Rittershaus]

Roman Trekel, the Staatsoper’s leading bass when René’ Pape is not in town, is an elegant and appropriately aristocratic Onegin who does not overplay his hand either in refusing Tatiana’s offer of love or in his outcry “Oh, my miserable fate!” that ends the drama.

It is, of course, Barenboim who made the production work. He understands Freyer’s intentions and supports the director fully in making this an evening of overwhelming music drama. Given the intensity of the staging it would be senseless to interrupt its impact with actual dancing of either the famous first-act Waltz or the spirited Polonaise that opens Act Three. Indeed, on the heels of the duel that leaves a red-bathed Lenski still standing at the rear of the stage Barenboim plunges from the duel into the Polonaise with a fury that brings the drama to a head. Lensky’s then collapses, the source of a lake of black blood then covers the entire stage. (To achieve the effect the off-white fabric that had covered the entire stage is slowly withdrawn. It’s hard to describe, but the effect is tremendous.)

The first reaction is, that although interesting, one would not want to see this Onegin again. But one gets up the next morning thinking of nothing else and wishing it were on stage again that night.

Freyer is his own designer.

Onegin was sung in Russian with German surtitles.

As a footnote, a shot of cultural sociology: I have lived in Berlin for long periods since 1954 and thus knew the city — and the Staatsoper before the Wall went up in 1961. And during the almost four decades that the Wall stood, I spent extended periods in East Berlin as an exchange scholar. What amazes me today — as the city prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall — is how divided Berlin remains and how obvious this is at musical events in the former East.

In the past two years I have been here at Easter, when Simon Rattle and his “sacred cow” Philharmonic are off in Salzburg, performing for an international audience at the spring festival founded there by Herbert von Karajan. Thus Easter finds the Philharmonic’s Berlin hall free, and Barenboim and his Staatskapelle seize the opportunity to show their stuff with the Berliner Festage, a spring festival founded by the East decades ago to counter the appeal of West Berlin’s September Festwochen.

The Festage draw their own international audience. (It was during this spring festival that two years ago I heard the Mahler cycle for which Barenboim and Pierre Boulez shared the Staatskapelle podium. I mention this here because the cycle comes to Carnegie Hall in the spring.)

But I digress.

The Easter festival brings an international audience to Berlin; “Onegin,” as I saw it at the Staatsoper on an inauspicious Wednesday in October fills the historic house largely with subscription holders, and I was amazed at the ease with which I can still distinguish “Ossis” from “Wessis” — to use the categories now long common here — in this audience. One sees it in their clothes; one sees it in the women’s frizzy permanents, but above all one sees it in their behavior. Opera remains for them something special — as they were taught that it was by the former Communist government that kept top-priced tickets at the Staatsoper at 15 marks East — totaling around $1.00 at the then rate of exchange — for forty years.

This is their night out, and subscriptions continue to make the Staatsoper and its orchestra somewhat affordable. A season ticket for the eight concerts by the Staatskapelle are available at Euros 118 with the unusually strong dollar bringing up to Euro .74. And — happy day! — the Staatsoper is flooded by youth, where the East-West divide is far less evident.

All this makes a run-of-the mill evening at the Staatsoper something to be studied. Drop down to the buffet; enjoy a glass or Rottka”ppchen champagne — one of the few Eastern products to survive reunification — and study this show-within-a-show! Finally: three years “in exile” are coming up for the Staatsoper. Its house — it’s still essentially the structure built by Friedrich the Great that opened in 1742 — has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times during Germany’s turbulent history and is now slated for badly needed total reconstruction.

What is to be done with the house is locally the subject of heated debate with one party calling for the construction of a hyper-modern auditorium within its historic walls. What visitors to Berlin need to know is that, beginning in the fall of 2009 and continuing for the next three years, the Staatsoper will be at home in the Schiller Theater, a modern venue once the pride of West Berlin and largely unused since Berlin has again been one city.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Boris Godunow at Magdeburg product=yes product_title=Opera in Germany product_by=Love for Three Oranges, Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunow, Neruda Songs product_id=Above: A Scene from Boris Godunow at Magdeburg
Posted by Gary at 3:37 PM

La Damnation de Faust at the MET

There are excellent reasons for this reluctance. Berlioz’s magical setting of scenes from Part I of Goethe’s Faust (in de Nerval’s translation, also the basis for Gounod’s opera) focuses hardly at all on the scenes of action that might be cobbled into a stage drama, but almost entirely on the poetic “background” of peasants dancing, students drinking, soldiers marching, fairies flying, devils cavorting, lords a-leaping, maids a-milking. This scene-setting and the fascinating and novel effects Berlioz drew from orchestra and chorus to depict it make up most of the evening, and traditional opera houses, even those equipped with elaborate stage machinery and full corps de ballet, seldom find it worth the effort. If you know Damnation at all, from live performance, it is probably from the concert hall, where the march and the sylphs are favorite show-off numbers, and two of its arias are greatly loved, Marguerite’s “D’amour, l’ardente flamme” and Méphistophélès’s serenade. Damnation fares a poor fourth in dramatic success as an operatic Faust, to works of Gounod, Boito and Busoni – but as a concert piece, it is rather better known than Schumann’s even less stageable Scenes from Faust. (Louis Spohr also composed a Faust, even before Goethe published his poem; one wonders what it can be like.)

As a masterpiece unwieldy by traditional means, Damnation is just the sort of opera the Met, with its spectacular stage and newly upgraded technical pizzazz ought to be putting on, rather than twisted interpretations of operas that worked just fine the old way, such as Peter Grimes, Lucia or (for that matter) Gounod’s Faust. And now the Met has done it, and done it to a turn, in a staging by Robert Lepage (of Cirque de Soleil fame, not irrelevantly), aided by “software artist” Holger Förterer.

The enormous stage is subdivided into fifteen boxes that become alleys in a library, rooms in a tavern, a moonlit bridge over a river (and the depths of that river, and Faust swimming under water), the windows of Marguerite’s house (no rural cottage for this kid, but the street-long palace of the Hohenzollerns), the stained glass windows of a church (with five naked crucifixions) and, at last, the fiery pits of Hell, filled with naked choristers. Nor are three dimensions enough for this production – red-coated demonic lizards crawl about on the surface of it, defying gravity, and soldiers march from stage bottom to top, perpendicular to the wall, before falling, wounded, three stories, into the arms of lamenting sweethearts. Marcello Giordani has to climb a ladder down from the top of the stage (four stories or so) at the evening’s beginning, when Faust is an old man, not yet satanically rejuvenated, and Susan Graham must climb up it at the end, to reach salvation. (No one ever said that route was easy.) The long musical or choral interludes between Damnation’s few action scenes are danced or acted or mimed by enormous non-singing forces (and also the Met chorus, which has seldom had so much to accomplish, while singing to boot), to so busy an extent that I found it, while thrilling, a sometimes unfortunate distraction from the luxurious musical performance Donald Palumbo’s chorus and James Levine’s orchestra were giving to Berlioz’s constantly fascinating concoctions.

While a very young crowd, accustomed to MTV style in which every note has its accompanying video image (and to never shutting their eyes and letting the music make its own image in your head), may be entranced by this production, especially when it comes to movie theaters, there may be too much of a muchness for old-fashioned movie lovers who would like to revel in sheer Berlioz. That curdled opinion only came to me two or three times, but I found little difficulty concentrating on the evening’s musical delights when they were set before me.

Damnation_Faust_Met_02.pngJohn Relyea (left) as Mephistopheles and Marcello Giordani as Faust

These musical honors, once the dancers, acrobats, and circus and lighting technicians had all been squared away, were neatly shared. Susan Graham may not be the most sensuous of mezzos – what would “D’amour, l’ardente flamme” have been like with Troyanos’s throb in her voice? – but it was splendid to have her back in her element rather than, as her Donna Elvira demonstrated, out of it: she sings Marguerite with total assurance, and fills the hall with the aria’s yearning message. John Relyea, who is obliged to do many athletic tricks in this production (but then, he flew at his debut, in Cenerentola, and mounted and rode a horse in Rodelinda), has a sizable if gruff instrument in which Méphistophélès’s wit and slimy charm if not his malice were always evident. He can win hearts by tossing a feathery leather cap, which he does at every opportunity. The only less than excellent work came from Marcello Giordani, who has made a specialty of heroic French roles (Raoul, Cellini, Enée), but here took half the evening to steady his voice, and was obliged to slide into falsetto once or twice for Faust’s punishing tessitura.

Damnation_Faust_Met_03.pngA scene from Part IV of Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust" with Marcello Giordani in the title role (top) and John Relyea as Mephistopheles (bottom, in red)

The stars, however, were James Levine and the orchestra that he has honed to diamond fineness, tricking out every brilliant detail and glow of Berlioz’s matchless ingenuity, giving us sensual pleasure to survive any distraction. The acrobats and the special effects were a treat, but I don’t think I’m the only one who found the evening’s real delight in the score itself, given such a performance.

This, surely, is as it should be.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Susan Graham as Marguerie and Marcello Giordani in the title role of Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust." [Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust product_by=Marguerite (Susan Graham); Faust (Marcello Giordani); Mephistopheles (John Relyea); Brander (Patrick Carfizzi).The Metropolitan Opera. Conducted by James Levine. product_id=Above: Susan Graham as Marguerie and Marcello Giordani

All photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:11 PM

Alarm over music academy spreads

By Robin Usher [The Age, 18 November 2008]

THE protest against the Federal Government’s decision to close the Australian National Academy of Music at the end of next month has taken on an international dimension.

Posted by Gary at 9:32 AM

'Porgy' at last

By Andrew Patner [Chicago Sun-Times, 17 November 2008]

Chicago — one of the great music cities, great African-American cities and great Jewish-American cities — has waited a long time for its major opera company to produce the great American opera, “Porgy and Bess.”

Posted by Gary at 8:24 AM

Opera singing a new tune

By Graydon Royce [Minneapolis Star Tribune, 17 November 2008]

The Minnesota Opera will commit $5.5 million over seven years to contemporary repertoire under a new program just announced. Minnesota OperaWorks envisions three commissions, three revivals of American works and an international co-production.

Posted by Gary at 8:22 AM

Farewell act of chutzpah

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 16 November 2008]

The news that Gerard Mortier, the controversial Belgian impresario, will not be moving to New York City Opera has surprised no one. It was always a stretch to imagine a man so accustomed to the largesse of the state answering to a board of private individuals on whose generosity his every artistic decision would depend. Mortier remains at the Paris Opéra, but only till the end of the season: under French law state employees retire at 65.

Posted by Gary at 7:41 AM

The Devil Is in the Details

By Justin Davidson [NY Magazine, 16 November 2008]

With all the mergers reshaping our society, the marriage of opera and movies may seem like a secondary kind of fusion, but it may become permanent and profound. With its live broadcasts, the Met has a new toehold in the multiplex; now, Robert Lepage’s multimedia production of Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust has resoundingly imported cinematic imagination into the opera house.

Posted by Gary at 7:38 AM

'Figaro' at Music Hall one of best Dallas Opera productions in memory

By Scott Cantrell [The Dallas Morning News, 15 November 2008]

The decors and dress are 18th-century, but the Marriage of Figaro that opened Friday at Fair Park Music Hall is as lively, as au courant, as a first-class TV sitcom.

Posted by Gary at 6:17 AM

The Greek Passion, Zurich Opera

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 12 November 2008]

Well-fed and well-off, these Christians pray to a God of compassion. But when refugees arrive on their doorstep, they turn their backs. Bohuslav Martinu’s The Greek Passion is an essay in hypocrisy.

Posted by Gary at 3:43 AM

November 16, 2008

La Traviata at the MET

That was the point of making the story into an opera in the first place. Serious, tragic operas were not, in those days, set in contemporary times, or among bourgeois persons. The management of La Fenice was sufficiently nervous to backdate the sets and costumes by a hundred years to the era of Manon Lescaut, but no one was fooled – everyone knew about Dumas’s recent, somewhat autobiographical hit novel and play, La Dame aux Camellias.

But more: La Traviata, for all its denunciation of hypocritical society, underlined a moral: once a woman had been around the block, she could never go home again, make a successful marriage, live happily ever after, become somebody’s mother, for heaven’s sake! It was important that this moral be made clear because, even back in 1853, everyone knew it wasn’t true – women of dubious reputation made prominent, respectable marriages all the time – even in Italy, never mind Paris. (For men with a past, of course, there had never been a problem.) In Italy, where divorce would not be an easy matter for another hundred years, marriages ended and divorced persons made alternative arrangements, accepted by their friends and families with greater or lesser indifference. Violetta simply had bad luck – and bad microbes. (Her original, Marie Duplessis, the high-class courtesan who discarded Dumas fils, wedded a nobleman but died of consumption at 23.)

The Met’s overcrowded Traviata has been touched up, polished and primed because Act II was telecast as part of the opening night Gala – but also to give a little more clarity to some of the muddier moments of the overblown Zeffirelli staging. There is a new conductor, Paolo Carignani, who leads a taut, lean performance without skimping on necessary sentiment – a waltz is a waltz is a waltz. His tempos are a bit frenetic in Act I – the singers seemed to find them too fast as well – but throughout the evening the climaxes evolved naturally from what had gone before, and no one was drowned out.

Anja Harteros is a tall, slim, handsome lady of aristocratic mien, appropriate to the Countess in Figaro, the role of her Met debut. In the party scene, where a tiara perches atop her dark curls, she resembles some frozen, forbidding royal of World War I vintage, which did not make for a sympathetic figure. I’d have liked her a lot more without the sparkles up top.

Her voice, when not warmed up, is harsh, even acid. In Act I she was not at all appealing, coloratura uneven, pitch sometimes off target, and her top capable of no optional high notes. She was not, in this scene, a Violetta, and it was unclear what role would be suitable – Lady Macbeth perhaps, where a large, ugly sound and uneven coloratura are excusable. But by Act II, she had calmed down – or the conductor was not pushing her so hard – and she made rich, creamy sounds, especially at “Più non esiste – or amo Alfredo” (an exquisite moment, and one that usually goes by unremarked). Her “Amami, Alfredo,” was capable but not demented – she is entirely too collected to play a woman losing emotional control. The last act was her best. The voice then revealed a sweetness when singing softly – it is the brilliance of the first act that escapes her, that hardens her sound.

TRAVIATA_scene_Harteros_001.pngA scene from Verdi's "La Traviata" with Anja Harteros as Violetta.

At least her height means she is one Violetta who does not look absurd beside the inevitable Baron Douphol of seven-foot-tall John Hancock, who has sung the part 36 times since this production premiered. Among other novelties this year: at curtain rise, he and Violetta were on the stairs, preparing to retire for a night’s romp, when their rowdy friends burst in, to his manifest annoyance. There is less picnicking on cushions in the opening scene than there used to be. But I miss the glove of challenge Hancock originally threw down to Alfredo at the end of Act II – the music expresses it, the era demands it, why has the Met deleted it? Do they think modern audiences would laugh? Would they? Would it matter?

The evening’s Alfredo, Massimo Giordano, is short, stocky, and not very handsome in the long “romantic” hairpiece that looked so good on Jonas Kaufmann. Giordano does not possess an instrument of exceptional beauty, but his instincts are musical; he does not bray and his high notes fill the room. He pays attention to the filigree in his cabaletta, and he launches himself into impassioned phrases with a nice sense of line. His finest moment – and Harteros’s – came during “Parigi, o cara,” sung caressingly, filling the house softly and accompanied tenderly – for a few minutes they were the perfect Alfredo and Violetta, singing to comfort each other, and we happened to overhear – a lovely bit of intimacy in this outsize occasion. (Harteros could use this voice for Lady M’s sleepwalk.)

Germont was Željko Lučić, who sang Macbeth last season: a real Verdi baritone, with a smooth, mellow sound as large as you could desire, and an actor’s judgment of the effect of each word. Most Germonts either stand stiffly or become excessively, even tearfully, sympathetic to the lady with a past whom they encounter in Act II; Lučić’s body language showed a provincial’s discomfort in this sophisticated milieu, and he had the grace to seem downright embarrassed at the sordid sacrifice he requested of her. A bit of a sob frilled each line of the second verse of “Di Provenza,” and I thought for a moment they might not cut his cabaletta. Cut it they did; the number is a pointless convenienze, but for once I wanted to keep it in, just to continue reveling in his sound. Ever-reliable Theodora Hanslowe sang Flora and Kathryn Day sounded clear as a bell in the usually fade-out role of Annina.

With Lučić as the thane, Harteros as his lady, Giordano as Macduff and lively Maestro Carignani urging the witches on, a potentially great cast for Macbeth currently holds the stage in the Met’s Traviata.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Anja Harteros as Violetta and Massimo Giordano as Alfredo [Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title= product_by=Violetta: Anja Harteros; Flora: Theodora Hanslowe; Alfredo: Massimo Giordano; Giorgio Germont: Željko Lučić; Douphol: John Hancock; Annina: Kathryn Day. The Metropolitan Opera. Conducted by Paolo Carignani. product_id=Above: Anja Harteros as Violetta and Massimo Giordano as Alfredo

All photos by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
Posted by Gary at 9:23 PM

Lucrezia Borgia at the Washington National Opera

My subject today is the first of these, Donizetti’s perpetually underperformed 1833 masterpiece Lucrezia Borgia. The next installment, to appear in a few days, will comment on the second – Bizet’s perennial favorite, the 1875 Carmen.

Lucrezia is a fiendishly difficult work for all involved. Spectacular settings of Renaissance Venice and Ferrara require the expensive kind of luxury in staging – luxury without ostentation. The director must create a sympathetic figure out of a legendary mass murderess, whose grit Donizetti evidently admired enough to make her a soprano, a victim, a mother, and a girl with a heart – most of the time… Meanwhile, the lead singer has to survive the endless bel canto lines and the head-spinning coloratura of her dramatic role written for a lyrical voice, all the while staying “in character” – and a character that psychologically is barely comprehensible to most of us. This was a tall order, and the result was worth the price of admission, which at the Washington National is always memorable in and of itself.

Grigolo,-Aldrich_Lucrezia-B.pngVittorio Grigolo as Gennaro, Kate Aldrich as Maffio Orsini.
A major ingredient in the production’s success was the fact that it was a Gesamtkunstwerk of sorts, with both stage direction and visual design in the excellent hands of the admirable John Pascoe. The stunning visuals, a fusion of old-world luxury with edgy and abstract modern lines, were sophisticated yet not overbearing. Central to the design were gigantic stone walls, first parting in welcome to the carnival atmosphere of Venice, the endless party town, then closing ominously to lock the characters and the audience in. Together with the fabulous lighting, a persistently excellent WNO feature (designer Jeff Bruckerhoff), these sets enhanced the complex psychological drama woven by Mr Pascoe the stage director. His reading of the libretto explained (if not entirely justified) Lucrezia’s bloodthirsty nature and reputation for promiscuity by casting her as a victim of incest and sexual abuse – an interpretation for which there is a valid historical precedent, as well as some veiled hints in the Donizetti score. Just to top it off, the historical heroine’s fictional son, Gennaro, is torn between an oedipal passion for his mother and a homoerotic one for his best friend Orsini – it is almost hard to believe Lucrezia has not yet joined The Tudors as a prime-time show on Cinemax!

Renée Fleming was billed as the star attraction of the show, and so she was. The singer’s famously buttery voice was on full display, even in Donizetti’s inhumane coloratura passages, which not only seemed easy, but were – a rare treat indeed – musical. Ms Fleming’s formidable acting skills served her best through the sections of the drama in which Lucrezia comes across as a sympathetic victim, fighting desperately for survival and the remaining shreds of her feminine dignity. It was harder to appear sympathetic in her Act 3 Scene 2 entrance, clad in male warrior attire (an unfortunate costume choice, in my opinion) and rejoicing in having just poisoned a group of admittedly foolish but basically harmless young men.

2_Aldrich,-Grigolo,-Fleming.pngKate Aldrich as Maffio Orsini, Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro, Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia

Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro had an easier task. His character’s sexual ambiguity is defined situationally, in relation to others throughout the opera, while Gennaro himself essentially remains unchanged – a young, passionate, straightforward (if not totally straight) macho warrior. Mostly what is required to strike the right tenor here is, forgive the obvious pun, the right tenor. Mr Grigolo is in a possession of a fantastic one: sonorous, yet crisp and metallic, a highly appropriate timbre for Donizetti’s character. Despite his youth, the singer was a worthy partner to Ms Fleming. Then again, he started performing professionally at age thirteen, and his first solo gig was at the Sistine Chapel – not your average résumé!

Vittorio Grigolo was not the only young singer in the cast. He was partnered with mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich in the travesti role of Maffio Orsini. One of the least experienced members of the ensemble, Miss Aldrich did an admirable job, which under normal circumstances would have garnered her well-deserved accolades. However, she was cursed by proximity. She simply could not quite hold her own in this all-star production and came across, undeservedly perhaps, as only adequate. On the other hand, the performance of the most venerable member of the line-up, the legendary Verdian bass-baritone Ruggero Raimondi, demonstrated both the advantages and pitfalls of experience. The 67-year-old singer appeared in a role with a significantly lower tessitura than those he performed in his early years. The part was shorn of most of its coloratura in an effort to accommodate the lack of flexibility in the voice, particularly conspicuous against Ms Fleming’s nonchalant virtuosity. Yet, unencumbered by the customary technical fireworks, Mr Raimondi was free to unleash his impressive dramatic talent, arguably more important than vocal prowess in the role of villainous Duke Alfonso. It was an honor to watch the old master at work.

Another master, Raimondi’s old partner Placido Domingo, was also involved in the production as the conductor of the performance. Unfortunately, on that front I have few laurel wreaths to award. Just as visual spectacle has consistently been one of the strongest elements of WNO’s productions, the company’s orchestra is almost always the weakest link. Donizetti’s score for Lucrezia Borgia is quite difficult for its time and genre; it contains, for instance, an unusual amount of brass writing, both in the pit and off-stage. Mr Domingo did a good job as a conductor, and the orchestra sounded better than the last time I heard it (in La traviata), but that is a very low bar to hurdle. In comparison with the level of artistry displayed by the singers and the director-designer in this production, the orchestral performance was barely passable, and I wish Mr Domingo, as the artistic director as well as conductor of the Washington National Opera could do something to improve a situation that surely cannot satisfy him. Other than that, Lucrezia is a world-class production, and the company is to be congratulated on its well-deserved success.

Olga Haldey

image= image_description=Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia [Photo by Karin Cooper] product=yes product_title=G. Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia product_by=Lucrezia Borgia (Renée Fleming), Gennaro (Vittorio Grigolo), Duke Alfonso (Ruggero Raimondi), Maffio Orsini (Kate Aldrich), Rustighello (Yingxi Zhang), Jeppo Liverotto (Jesus Hernandez), Apostolo Gazella (Grigory Soloviov), Ascanio Patrucci (Oleksandr Pushniak), Astolfo (David B. Morris), Gubetta (Robert Cantrell), Oloferno (Jose Ortega). Washington National Opera. Conductor: Plácido Domingo. Director: John Pascoe. product_id=Above: Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia

All photos by Karin Cooper courtesy of Washington National Opera.
Posted by Gary at 8:58 PM

Wozzeck, Munich

Michael Volle portrays Georg Buechner’s and Alban Berg’s character with unparalleled intensity, such a beautiful baritonal sound even in the most harrowing moments, and such ease beneath the tortured surface, that it is almost too good. He did everything as one could hope for in a Wozzeck on stage, but he never elicited much pity and never seemed quite as helpless-hapless as Wozzeck probably should. In a way, his great musical and dramatic strengths came at the expense of the character.

Something similar could be said about Andreas Kriegenburg’s direction – or more specifically the phenomenal lighting of Stefan Bolliger and how it works with the continuously fascinating set of Harald B. Thor and Andrea Schraad costumes: It is so absorbing, so good and stimulating to look at, it might distract from the psychological development of the characters. On Monday night, it also distracted from some so-so singing (Jürgen Müller underpowered and underwhelming as Drum Major and Clive Bayley with an average night as the Doctor) and in doing so, it unleashed the drama unto the audience in a visceral way that even Wozzeck-lovers might not have expected.

Because with this would-be quibbles taken care of, the fact remains that this was a stunning premiere, a spectacular performance, and indeed a striking success for the Munich Opera’s second new production under the new general director Klaus Bachler. Kriegenburg, a theater director, had done only two operas before (which I have not seen), but here he hit a nerve in just the right way. Instead of exerting a willful personality, ideology, or aching modernization on Wozzeck, he gives us an internalized picture (set roughly in the time of the play’s premiere) where the world as Wozzeck sees it is how the audience sees it. Except for Marie and his son, the characters are distortions of their personalities, one more disturbing than the next. The crowds are hordes of unemployed, shadows in the world of Wozzeck’s steadily slipping sense of reality. When the apartment-within-the-stage begins to very subtly shift left and right, the visualization of this losing grasp on reality becomes so perceptible, it’s as if you could touch it. I felt like I needed a splash of cold water or a slap in the face myself.

Amid this Michaela Schuster’s Marie altered between pleasurable cantabile and appropriate crudeness, Wolfgang Schmidt earned merits with his cleanly sung, morbidly obese captain, and Munich’s tenor-for-everything Kevin Conners delivered a fine, sonorous Andres. Wozzeck was also a good night – to the hesitant surprise of the Munich critics – for music director Kent Nagano.

Speculations about his contract not being renewed are only slowly residing, discussions about a rift between the music- and general director are still indulged in with tabloid-like diligence by the feuilletons. But this performance was one for a mark in his supporter's good books. Nagano’s strengths emerge best in modern works where clarity is part of the musical success.


The orchestra, apparently well rehearsed, gave the music an elastic, clear treatment; the score sounded taut and diaphanous. Only very occasionally was the orchestra too loud; more often it was very sensitive. When Nagano waded onto stage, barefoot and his trousers rolled up, he received as warm a reception as I’ve heard him get in Munich. Only Kriegenburg and his team got more – wholly absent of boos, too, perhaps a novelty for a premiere of a modern production in Munich.

If any Wozzeck production can convince the hesitating masses to listen to this difficult 20th century masterpiece, it would have to be this one.

Jens F. Laurson

image= image_description=Scene from Wozzeck (Munich 2008) [Photo Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy Bayerische Staatsoper] product=yes product_title=Alban Berg: Wozzeck product_by=Michael Volle (Wozzeck), Michaela Schuster (Marie), Wolfgang Schmidt (Hauptmann), Clive Bayley (Doktor), Jürgen Müller (Tambourmajor), Kevin Conners (Andres), Christoph Stephinger (1.Handwerksbursche), Francesco Petrozzi, (2.Handwerksbursche), Kenneth Roberson (Narr), Heike Grötinger (Margret). Bavarian State Opera, Soloists, Bavarian State Opera Orchestra, Kent Nagano (conductor), Nationaltheater, Munich 10.11.2008. Andreas Kriegenburg (direction). Harald B. Thor (sets). Andrea Schraad (costumes). Stefan Bolliger (lighting). product_id=Above: Scene from Wozzeck [Photo by Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper]
Posted by Gary at 5:56 PM

PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly — Covent Garden 1957

Music composed by Giacomo Puccini. Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the play Madame Butterfly by David Belasco.

First performance: 17 February 1904, La Scala, Milan.
Revised edition: 28 May 1904, Brescia.


Early in 1900, David Belasco, an American producer, needed a play with which to save a rather disastrous season, and finding possibilities in John Luther Long’s “Madame Butterfly,” he fashioned from it a drama in the short space of two weeks. His season was saved, for the play was a success, the all-night vigil making a particularly great appeal. Soon the play was produced in London, where the manager of Covent Garden saw it, and knowing that Puccini needed a successor to “La Tosca,” he wired him. Puccini came to London immediately, and was charmed with “Madame Butterfly” as an operatic possibility, even though, it is said, he did not at that time understand a word of English.

At its first performance the opera was a distinct failure. Perhaps the strangeness of a Japanese setting antagonized the audience; the second act, moreover, with its miniature all-night watch, so successful in the drama, became too long in the opera. The opera was withdrawn, Puccini made a few slight changes, and through necessity ruthlessly interrupted the vigil, making two parts of the second act. Produced three months later at Brescia, Madame Butterfly was a success, and since that day has become one of the most popular of operas.

While much of this success is due to the dramatically conceived play, much more is due to Puccini’s music. For the sake of local color the composer has introduced a number of genuine Japanese melodies—melodies that he was enabled to obtain exactly from Victor records made in Japan. Puccini also shows that he was aware of musical progress in the rest of the world, when, for instance, at the entrance of Butterfly, lie effectively makes extensive use of augmented triads after the fashion first brought into prominence by Debussy. In the more emotional parts of his opera, however, lie is thoroughly Italian and Puccinian in style.

Principal Characters:
Madame Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San)Soprano
Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servantMezzo-Soprano
B. F. Pinkerton, Lieutenant, U.S. NavyTenor
Kate Pinkerton, his American wifeMezzo-Soprano
Sharpless, U.S. Consul at NagasakiBaritone
Goro, a marriage brokerTenor
Prince Yamadori, suitor for Cio-Cio-SanBaritone
The Bonze, Cio-Cio San’s uncleBass

Setting: Nagasaki, Japan, circa 1904.


Act I

Scene—Exterior of Pinkerton’s House at Nagasaki

It is all vastly amusing! This matchbox of a house and its sliding panels, or shosi, in place of walls, neat and ingenious devices; and ridiculously inexpensive! Pinkerton, Lieutenant in the United Stales Navy, is charmed and amused as the self-important matrimonial agent, Goro, shows him over the little house he is to make his home during a not-too-prolonged stay in Japan. Presently Sharpless, United States Consul, turns up. Pinkerton tells him delightedly about the beautiful Japanese girl by whom he has been captivated, and whom he is to marry Japanese fashion for nine hundred and ninety-nine years, but with the privilege of annulling the marriage any month. The consul has a dim suspicion that the experiment may turn out more seriously than his friend anticipates, but Pinkerton will not listen to hints of tragedy. “Whisky?” proposes the Naval Lieutenant. Having filled their glasses the men drink to the toast “America forever!” then to the folks at home and to the time when Pinkerton will have a “real” wedding back in “God’s country.”

The two men stand looking out over the glorious scenery, so different from the homeland that to an American it is a make-believe world. From the foot of the hill girlish voices are heard, gradually drawing nearer. The music pulsates glowingly while the girls chatter about the beauty of the day and the flowers. Among them is Cio-Cio-San, “Madame Butterfly,” and to Pinkerton this little creature in her kimono is a butterfly indeed. Her voice soars above the others in broad, lyric phrases while she sings of the ecstasy of her love.

As the music reaches its climax the girls appear on the terrace and prostrate themselves before the “augustness” of Pinkerton. Sharpless enters into a conversation with Butterfly and learns that since the death of her father she has had to support herself and mother by becoming a Geisha.

The bride’s relatives, great numbers of them, now arrive. While the guests are all busied with the refreshments, Pinkerton amusedly watches Butterfly, who draws from her capacious sleeves her possessions . . . such trifles as handkerchiefs, a jar of carmine, a fan . . . and with great solemnity a long sheath. The officious Goro whispers an explanation to Pinkerton . . . the dagger was sent to her father by the Mikado . . . and he was obedient, Goro adds grimly. Thus is Pinkerton reminded that he is in the land given to seppuku, or “hara-kiri,” a condemned gentleman’s privilege to die by his own hand. Butterfly also shows him her ottoke, images of her forefathers; but she confides to Pinkerton that she has been to the Mission and adopted his religion, innocently adding that she will try to be frugal for she knows that he has paid for her the whole sum of a hundred yen. She declares that for his sake she is willing to forget race, kindred and ancestors; to prove this last, she throws away their images.

Goro commands silence and the quaint ceremony of signing the marriage contract takes place. The gaiety of congratulations is suddenly interrupted, for Cio-Cio-San’s uncle rushes in, violently enraged. Being a Bonze, or Japanese priest, he has learned that Butterfly has forsaken the faith of her ancestors upon marrying this foreigner. Therefore, he curses her with threats of eternal punishment, all her relatives likewise denounce her, for in deserting her gods she has likewise deserted her people! All rush away in horror leaving Butterfly weeping bitterly. Pinkerton consoles her, and in the thought of his love she is again happy. Night falls over the scene and they sing of their happiness together.

Act II

Scene—The Interior of Butterfly’s House

Part 1

Beyond the room one can see the garden with cherries in blossom, bright in the spring sunshine, but the wall panels being only partly open, the room remains in semi-darkness. Before an image of Buddha kneels Suzuki. Occasionally she rings a handbell while she prays that Butterfly’s weeping may be ended. Butterfly, who is standing motionless near a screen, tells her that the gods of Japan are lazy—her husband’s God will answer her more quickly. Although the money that Pinkerton left is almost gone. Butterfly is still so firm in her belief that her husband will return, that she commands the doubting Suzuki to say that he will. Suzuki complies in spite of her tears.

Greatly touched at this, Butterfly, to reassure herself as well as Suzuki, affirms her belief (in a famous aria), that some day (Un bel di) a great ship will appear far in the horizon . . . the boom of cannon will announce its arrival in the harbor . . . they will see him coming from a distance . . . climbing the hill. Butterfly will hide for a moment to tease him. . . he will call for her by the old names of endearment. . . so let fears be banished, Butterfly declares, utterly carried away by the joy of her anticipation, for he will return, she knows it!

At the moment she has finished this declaration of her trust, Sharpless appears. Goro, who has conducted him here, waits outside. “Madame Butterfly,” he calls. “Madame B. F. Pinkerton, beg pardon!” the wife corrects, then turning and recognizing her visitor, greets him cheerfully. He has a letter from Pinkerton, he tells her. She is the most happy of women, she replies, and then without waiting for Sharpless to read she asks him when the robins build their nests in America . . . for, she continues, Pinkerton had said that he would come back in the happy season when the robins return . . . now, for the third time the robins are building their nests. Sharpless, in his embarrassment, is forced to reply that he never studied ornithology. Goro laughs outright at this. The marriage-broker now presents Yamadori, a wealthy suitor, who, though he has had many consorts and divorced them all, says that he is madly in love with Butterfly and will swear eternal faithfulness to her. She repulses him and his proffered wealth, for she is married to an American, and in his country people remain faithful! Broker and suitor disposed of, Sharpless attempts to resume reading the letter; everything he reads is interpreted by Butterfly into some happy assurance that her husband will soon return. The consul has not the heart to go on, he asks Butterfly what she would do if Pinkerton were never to come back to her. As if struck by a death-blow Butterfly gravely replies that she might again become a Geisha or she might kill herself. Sharpless is horrified and advises her to marry Yamadori. This greatly insults Butterfly . . . ordering Suzuki to bring in “Trouble,” the name she has bestowed on her little son, she points to the child in agitated pride, and exclaims “And this? Can such as this be forgotten?” She asks Sharpless to write to her husband and tell him what a beautiful son he has. Thus does the consul learn to his surprise that unknown to Pinkerton there is a child. In true motherly joy, her attention concentrated entirely on little “Trouble,” she bids him not to believe the bad man when he says that father will not return, but leave them to wander through the streets for a living.

Sharpless leaves, fearful for the future. Soon after he has gone a cannon shot is heard booming from over the harbor, announcing the arrival of an American warship. With the help of a telescope Butterfly spells out its name—“Abraham Lincoln,” Pinkerton’s ship!

So, then, the agony of waiting is over! He has come with the robins—her lover, her husband, her adored one! In a moment the two women are feverishly rushing to the garden lo gather cherry blossoms to deck the house. They sing the joyous “Duet of the Flowers”, throbbing with the excitement and exultation of the rejoicing Butterfly, who then hastens to put on the wedding dress she wore on that day long ago, so that she may greet her lover as he first knew her. Little “Trouble,” too, is arrayed in his finest.

Night has been falling; the servant closes the shosi and brings in several Japanese lanterns which cast a dim glow over the darkened room. But they must await Pinkerton’s return . . . be ready to welcome him. In her anxious, joyful expectancy Butterfly has pierced three little holes through the wall so that they may watch for him. “Trouble” sits before one, supported by cushions; at another kneels Suzuki; close up against a third stands Butterfly, rigid and motionless . . . watching . . . waiting . . . A wonderful melody first heard during the reading of the letter, floats across the scene, softly hummed from a distance. “Trouble” soon nods, then falls asleep . . . next Suzuki . . . Butterfly keeps her vigil alone.

Part 2

The grey light of dawn begins to enter the room. Butterfly still stands, motionless, watching; Suzuki and “Trouble” still sleep, profoundly. The lanterns become even more dim while the day grows brighter; like the morning sunlight the music sparkles with vagrant Japanese melodies. Suzuki having awakened and begged her to lie down to rest awhile, Butterfly takes little “Trouble” and goes with him into an inner room. No sooner has she gone than Sharpless and Pinkerton arrive. Suzuki is overjoyed at seeing them, but they motion her to keep silent. She points out how Butterfly has decorated the house, and tells how she waited all night. The servant, on opening the shosi, exclaims in surprise for she notices a strange woman in the garden. Fearfully she asks who it is. Pinkerton’s wife, Sharpless explains. Suzuki cries out in grief.

Sharpless asks Suzuki to prepare Butterfly for this bitter revelation and tells her that the American woman has come to adopt the child. Pinkerton. overwhelmed with remorse, leaves the house after asking Sharpless to console Butterfly the best he can. A moment later Butterfly rushes in joyfully expecting to find Pinkerton. Instead she sees Sharpless, a foreign woman, and Suzuki in tears. She begins to realize the heartless truth. She asks if he is alive, her voice hushed with expectant fear. Only Suzuki’s broken “yes” is needed, and she knows that she has been deserted. Mrs. Pinkerton expresses her helpless sympathy, and asks to take the child. Butterfly, having listened in pathetic dignity, replies that only to Pinkerton will she yield her son . . . she will be ready in half an hour. Sharpless and Mrs. Pinkerton take their leave; Butterfly orders Suzuki to go into another room with the child.

Then she takes from its sheath the dagger with which her father had fulfilled the law of his people, and reads the inscription written upon its blade: “To die with honor when one can no longer live with honor.” She raises the knife to her throat. At that instant, the door opens and little “Trouble” runs to her with outstretched arms. She drops the knife, impetuously seizes the child and covers him with kisses. Having bade him a heart-rending farewell, she gives her son a doll and an American flag, urges him to play with them, then gently bandages his eyes. Again she takes the dagger, goes behind the screen. A moment later the blade is heard falling to the floor. Butterfly staggers forward groping her way to her child, takes its hand, and smiles feebly. She scarcely has strength to give her son one final embrace, then falls beside him, dead.

Pinkerton is heard calling her name. A moment later he rushes into the room followed by Sharpless. He kneels beside Butterfly sobbing with grief and shame; Sharpless takes the child and turns away.

The orchestra thunders out a solemn Japanese melody . . . over and above the very last note of that melody there sounds a poignant, questioning chord, as though this tragedy were not yet, nor ever would be, ended.

[Adapted from The Victrola Book of the Opera (Victor Talking Machine Company, 1929).]

Click here for the complete libretto, including alternate versions.

Click here for Madame Butterfly by John Luther Long

image= image_description=Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): Madama Butterfly audio=yes first_audio_name=Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): Madama Butterfly
WinAMP or VLC first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): Madama Butterfly product_by=B.F. Pinkerton (John Lanigan), Cio-Cio-San (Victoria de los Angeles), Sharpless (Geraint Evans), Suzuki (Barbara Howitt). Choir and Orchestra of The Covent Garden Opera Company. Rudolf Kempe, conductor.

Live performance, 2 May 1957, Covent Garden, London.
Posted by Gary at 4:37 PM

Great Operatic Arias with Sir Thomas Allen 2

The selections (all in English) jump back and forth between Mozart and Verdi until a closing number of Kurt Weill. Even an artist as fine as Sir Thomas can’t quite overcome the challenge of embodying a character with one aria when one track of his Figaro moves to his Papa Germont, which is followed by his Papageno. Listeners might be advised to program the selections by grouping the two different composers’ works together, to keep at least some musical cohesion.

Conductor David Parry’s poky pacing dampens the humor and high spirits of the Flute and Don Giovanni numbers, and the fussy formality of the English translations are a further hindrance. In Verdi, however, Parry and the Philharmonia Orchestra involve themselves more in the drama. Almost 20 minutes go to the act two Traviata duet, with Claire Rutter as Violetta. Once again, the Engish translation’s stilted syntax can be a distraction, but both Sir Thomas and Rutter have the time to deepen their characterizations. Even better are two scenes for Don Carlos (a fine Gwyn Hughes Jones) and Rodrigo, where the voices blend handsomely.

Perhaps Sir Thomas is heard at his charismatic best in the final cut, Kurt Weill’s “September Song.” Allen doesn’t oversing, as classically trained singers tend to do in Broadway numbers, and his feeling for the lyric is natural and affecting.

John Steane’s booklet essay concerns itself with the nature and history of the operatic baritone voice, making key points with the arias of this collection. Some readers will be illuminated, and other may find it dry and didactic. The latter group probably would appreciate an expanded biographical note on the singer, and perhaps some words from Sir Thomas himself. The essay and artists’ notes come in English, German, and Italian, but only English texts are provided.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Great Operatic Arias with Sir Thomas Allen 2

product=yes producttitle=Great Operatic Arias with Sir Thomas Allen 2 productby=Thomas Allen, baritone, Philharmonia Orchestra, Gareth Hancock: assistant conductor, David Parry: conductor. productid=Chandos 3155 [CD] price=$12.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 12:18 PM

November 13, 2008

Jean Baptiste Lully's Persée

From the opening scene, Louis XIV would have felt quite at home in Versailles or the Académie Royal de Musique,2 viewing a performance of Lully's Tragédies Lyriques.3

It was, then, the custom to emulate the grandeur and “virtuosity” of the king in the form of mythological and classical heroes. All court entertainment, specifically opera and to a greater extent ballet, was allegoric, where good won over evil and credit was always given to Louis XIV,4 the Sun King, for his wisdom, generosity, forgiveness and every other kingly quality, except for the bad ones: those were ignored or at best, only observed behind closed doors. The Sun King and royalty, in general, were always portrayed from their best possible angle—art re-inventing life, or was it the other way around?5

Though not without precedent, purists may regret this production eliminating the Prologue: Lully used it to set up the story,6 and to further glorify the king's virtues and his victories in the war against the Swedish/Dutch alliance.7 But never fear, in Lully's operas, the libretto is tightly written so that each act is a “play” unto itself with its own theme, yet carrying the dramatic line from the previous act onto the next—links in a closed chain with the entr'acte as an indicator of time or place.8 To facilitate the continuity, the scenes withing each act are marked by the entrance and exit of characters, the former usually accompanied by a brief musical introduction.9

This DVD opens with the exchange between the Ethiopian king, Céphée (Olivier Laquerre), his wife Cassiope (Stephanie Novacek), and her sister, Mérope (Monica Whicher), who is in lover with Persée—but Persée lovers Céphé's and Cassiope's daughter, Andromède. This love triangle sets up the plot of the opera: Céphé has promised his daughter's hand to his brother, Phinée.

Canadian Bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre is a versatile singing-actor, equally convincing as the dignified King of Ethiopia or as the whimpering Medusa;10 Laquerre takes control of the stage with his presence: he is very tall, 6-foot-5 and gifted with good looks, wit, plenty of charisma, and a deep voice of pleasant timbre. From his opening line, “Je crains que Junon ne refuse,”11 Céphée is torn between his duties as king, his duties to the gods, and the unscrupulous five and take of politics; he is forced to denounce his wife, “Les dieux punissent la fierté.”12 in exchange of Juno's forgiveness, and to seek Persée's help to defeat Medusa, at the cost of breaking the promise made to his brother, Phinée. Céphée's good will and helplessness are clearly evident in spite of his elegant carriage, and Laquerre plays on this through effective moves and color in the voice.

Laquerre burst into the world of opera in 1999 when he won the Joseph Ruleau Prize at the Jeunesses Musicales of Canada Voice Competition.13 In 2005, Laquerre sang the role of Theodorus Ivanowitz in the world premiere of Johann Mattheson's Boris Goudenow; the following year, the young Canadian singer debuted in Quebec as Escamillo in Bizet's Carmen. The year 2007 brought the release of the film The Magic Flute Diaries in which Laquerre sings the role of Papageno.

In sharp contrast to Laquerre's elegant king, his Medusa stands above the croud in terms of interpretation and wit. This is no overly dramatic raving lunatic; instead, Laquerre's Medusa is amusing and amused about “her” misfortune. In “J'ay perdu la beauté,”14 Laquerre makes eye contact with members of the audience and hisses at them in imitation of the words he sings; he prances and parades around the stage, laughs wickedly, and runs the gamut of facial expressions and grandiose body language. This Medusa is Phyllis Diller-meets-Gypsy Role Lee singing “Let me entertain you,” and Laquerre carries it off!

One glance at Stephanie Novacek's good looks and sensuous carriage and the viewer easily understands Juno's anger toward the character of Cassiope. This is no wall flower or contrite queen as “Hereuse espouse, hereuse mère,” and “Par un cruel chastiment,”15 would indicate. Cassiope is a woman obsessed with her vanity, her ego, and her quest for a “glorious destiny,” regardless of the cost.

A former member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, Iowa native, Novacek gained international attention with her performance of Jo, in the world premiere of Mark Adamo's Little Women at the Houston Grand Opera. Novacek also created the role of Maria Callas in Michael Daughtery's Jackie O, also at the Houston Grand Opera, and for the Cincinnati Opera, she created the role of Madame, in the US premiere of The Maids, by Peter Bengston. A versatile singer, she has appeared in many North American and European operatic centers, covering the entire spectrum of musical styles from Monteverdi to the present.

Throughout this DVD, Novacek is a superb actress, and she knows how to show off her fine instrument without sacrificing the musical line. Her bronzed mezzo-soprano is ideal for the haughty queen; she approaches the recitatives head on, and without apology. In the prayer, “O Junon! Puissante déesse,”16 Novacek is moving in her pleas to the goddess for compassion. Her singing is exciting and versatile' to paraphrase a line from the Wizard of Oz, “[Stephanie] you not in [Iowa} any more.”

Laquerre and Novacek pull all the stops in Act IV, Scenes 4-6. “Ah! Quel effroyable supplice”17 leads to one of the opera's special moments for these two characters: faced with the impending loss of their daughter, the Ethiopian King and Queen express their dispair. Céphée's “Je perds ma fille, helas!”18 is hearfelt and Cassiope's “C'est ma funeste vanité,”19 is passionate and compelling.

Persée was the second libretto Philippe Quinault20 wrote for Lully after the poet's return from exile. Quinault had been banished from court for his negative portrayal of the then mistress to the king, Madame de Montespan, in his libretto to Lully's opera, Isis (1677).21 Now, as if to redeem himself, the poet added the character of Mérope,22 the lovesick woman who gives everything up for the man she loves, Persée (Louis XIV).23

In Persée, Quinault and Lully created four distinct characters24 whose opening scenes reflect their true identities. Most obvious of these is Mérope, the emotional center of the opera. Not royal enough to be queen, her position is subservient to her sister's vain glory and other circumstances of her own making. Yet, everything revolves around her, directly as a result of her actions or indirectly as a mirror to her alter-ego, Phinée. Mérope is pitiful and embittered, yet strong and determined; she is devious, but in the end, she proves to be the only one with honorable intentions—her unrequited love for Persée is ideally strong enough for her to retreat and to accept the hero's rejection.25

“Rich sensuous tone worthy of her regal character” is how Dave Eliakis has described soprano Monica Whicher's instrument, and rightly so: Whicher has a lustrous tone and she imbues her character with enough poignance and sincerity of emotion to make the somewhat bitter and conniving character of the love-torn Mérope, likable.

Aside from a short ensemble prayer in the first scene of the opera, Mérope's entrance recitatives in Act I, Scene 2, “Le Fils de Jupiter L'adore...Main vainqueur encore aujourd'huy,”26 gives Wicher ample room to display her ability to handle the character's conflicting range of emotions. As Mérope, Wicher vacillates from anger and bitterness when she sings of Persée, to sorrow or self-pity when she sings of her emotions for him. She imbues the words, “...Je murrois de honte et de rage...,”27 with more longing, as though searching inward, with each repeat of the phrase.

Mérope's lament in Act I, Scene 3, “Ah! Je garderay bienmon cœur,”28 offers a fine marriage of words, music and emotions. The long musical line that supports the yearning in the words ends sharply upon the realization that her rival for Persée's affections, Andromède, is approaching with Phinée. Wicher's mastery is evident: instantly, Mérope's lament turns to conniving strategy, betraying her deceit with the words, “L'espoir de leur hymen flate encore mes vœux, et c'est ma derniere espérance,” and in the subsequent scene, speaking to Androméde and Phinée, “Quels différents sonts capables de rompre de beaux nœuds?”29

Whicher is hypnotic in the opening scene of Act V, “O mort!”30 an emotionally charged hymn from the depths of her despair, rich in its sincerity of expression, and with a wealth of color in the voice. For all of the character's deviousness, Whicher weaves all the emotions into a beautiful thread of resignation to make the character's death-wish believable, though regrettable.

A faculty member at the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada, Whicher's instrument has been described as having “...musical elegance combined with an intuitive theatrical sense [that] are the hallmarks of soprano Monica Whicher's performances....”31

Alan Coloumbe superbly sings the role of Phinée, the anti-hero and Mérope's alter ego. Like his female counterpart, Phinée, is a pawn in a game he is destined to lose, but unlike Mérope who is driven by her emotions, Phinée is driven by his ego and pride.

Coloumbe has been praised for his rich bass voice, secure tone and wondrous breath control—all of which he puts to effective use in this performance. Another good singing actor, Coloumbe sings with aplomb and has a magnetic stage presence. He is sadistic in “Croyez-moy, croyez moy,”32 the lively and multifaceted exchange between Phinée and his bethrothed, Andromède (Marie Lenormand), over her supposed infidelity. Coloumbe and Lenormand go one to one; a tour de force of emotions and beautiful singing.

In most of the scenes Coloumbe shares with Wicher, Phinée vocalizes Mèrope's inner wishes and she succumbs to his manipulative words and his desire for vengeance. Mèrope connives in “il est aimé de ce qu'il ayme,”33 on Phinée's behalf, and in Act IV, Scenes 2 & 3, their music as their singing, is brave and dramatic, starting with “Nous ressentons mesmes dolueurs,”34 then, together and individually in recitative and duets, they vent their anger, envy, and their displeasure. As the approaching storm, as called for in the libretto, gives rise to the seas, they sing “...Les cœ amoureux et jaloux, sont cent fois plus troublez que vous,”35 and upon learning of Andromède's impending doom, Phinée's angry words, “Les dieux ont soin de nous vanger; le plaisir que je sens avec peine se cache,”36 could easily have been spoken by Mèrope. In a later scene, Phinée's recitative, “Que ne purra...,”37 is impassioned, seductive, and Colombe imbues his lush instrument with emotion and vocal color worthy of the lyrics and music. This recitative leads to a short duet with Mèrope, “Heureux qui peut gouster...,”38 where the two characters share their anguish and “...our feelings of evil.”

Unbeknown to him, Giovanni Battista Luilli (November 28, 1632-March 22, 1687) left his humble origins in his native Florence in 1646 to become Monsieur Jean Baptiste de Lully, and in the process he also became the “Father of French Opera.”

At fourteen years of age he was, for all intents and purposes, purchased from his family and taken to France by Chevalier de Guise for servitude as garçon de chanbre in the household of his niece and cousin to the king, Mlle. De Montpensier. In time, Lully studied keyboard, violin, and ballet, and after being released from Mlle. De Montpensier's household, he found a position at court. There, Lully quickly rose to the post of surintendant de musique et compositeur de la musique de chambre for Louis XIV, and in 1662, the king elevated him to the post of Maître de musique.

At court, Lully worked with Moliere on several “mechanical” projects for the stage39 and comediés-ballets which were highly successful, culminating with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670). For these projects, Lully contributed dances, ballets, vocal music and complete scenes—the experience of which he would later put to use in the development of the Tragediés lyriques, or more accurately, Tragégedies en musique.40

At first, Lully was not enthusiastic about opera as a French art form; at least, not until Pierre Perrin41 obtained a royal patent on June 28, 1669, to establish Académies d'Opéra for the presentation of French prose set to music. The Académie de poesie et de musique42 opened in Paris on March 3, 1671, with a performance of Pomone,43 an opera with a text by Perrin and music by Robert Cambert (1628-1677).44 It is generally acknowledged that this production of Pomone encouraged Lully to pursue opera in French. Upon Perrin's imprisonment the following year,44 and over the objections of other investors (Cambert among them), Lully, with the help of Louis XIV, succeeded in taking over Perrin's interest in the Académie patent. In exchange, Lully paid off Perrin's debts.45

Lully transformed Perrin's Académie de poesie et de musique into his own Académie Royal de Musique, today's Paris Opéra, and through a series of other Royal Patents, he was able to acquire absolute monopoly on opera production.46 Through his “favorite” status with the king, Lully could dictate which singers sang in which theaters and how many musicians could play in an orchestra outside of the Académie.47

Quinqult's libretto for Lully's Persée is loosely based on books IV and V of Ovid's Metamorphoses,48 dealing with the mythical hero's defeat of Medusa and his gallant rescue of Androméde.49 The opera portrays the fidelity and true love between Androméde (Madame de Maintenon (November 27, 1635-April 15, 1719) the king's new mistress and future wife) and Persée (Louis XIV); more importantly, it glorifies the wisdom of the Sun King and his victories over his rivals. “Medusa and her two hideous sisters cold not help but remind [the king] of the threefold alliance conspiring against him in union with the Prince of Orange: The United Provinces of Holland, Sweden and the Holy Roman Emperor. The Monstrous force that terrified Andromeda was threatening him as well, and Spain joined forces with it in May.”50 In the dedication of the work to the king, Lully states the purpose of his composition: “I understand that in describing the favorable gifts which Persée has received from the Gods and the astonishing enterprises which he has achieved so gloriously, I am tracing a portrait of the heroic qualities and the wonderful deeds of Your Majesty.”

Lully and Quinault purposely kept Persée absent in Act I;51 it was for the rest of the characters to laud his virtues and to keep the thought of him as the unifying thread in the opera—as in real life: the court, country, and the world, revolved around the Sun King; his name, never far from anyone's thoughts or lips. Persée's late entrance (Act II, Scene VI) also serves as a backdrop to the struggle between the characters and eliminates the need for the hero to make a less than “virtuous” decision by claiming the hand of the woman he loves—a woman who is already committed to another man.52 It falls on Andromède's father, Céphée, to break the news to his brother Phinée by telling him that Persée's “worth will surprise you. Acknowledge the son of the most powerful of the Gods...” and honor his courage.

The lead roles of Andromède and Persée are well interpreted by Marie Lenormand and Cyril Auvity.

Like most members of the cast in this production, French mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand is one of those singers whose successful career is virtually unknown; yet, for over ten years she as been a frequent performer in North America and Europe. In Houston, where she was a member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio from 1999 to 2002, she appeared in two American premieres: Lenorman originated the role of Thelma Predmore in Carlisle Floyd's Cold Sassy Tree (2000) and The Fox, in Rachel Portman's The Little Prince (2003).

Lenormand's engaging stage presence and porcelain-doll-looks make her ideal to play the conflicted role of Andromède; then, there is her lustrous voice. Lenormand possesses an enviable pitch perfect instrument, rich and elegant with a rock solid technique and vivid phrasing.

An excellent singing actress, Lenormand's winsome looks bely the strength in her, and she runs the gamut of emotions with Coloumbe in “Croyez-moy.” In “Infortunez qu'un monstre affreux...Il ne m'ayme que trop...,”53 Act II, Scene V, Lenormand's soul searching singing is at once poignant and painfully beautiful. An extended scene follows with a sensitive duet between Andromède and Mèrope, “Vous l'aymez;”54 where their voices are fluid and seamless in their acknowledgment of their mutual love for Persée. Later, in Act IV, Lenormand is eloquent and compelling as Andromède, facing death, reminisces over what could have been, “Dieux qui me destinez.”55

Lenormand imbues Andromède's duet with Persée, Act II, Scene 6, with emotional and dramatic impact with her vulnerability at the realization that, in spite of having rejected his advances, she does not love her betrothed, Phinée, but Persée, “Vous m'aymez vainement....Persée, arrestez, arrestez...Ah! Vostre péril....”56

Persée, though central to the action, is the least riveting character, to not say the weakest.57 Of all the major characters in the opera, he appears in only eleven scenes and sings in only six—and he has fewer lines than the relatively minor character of Mercure. However, tenor Cyril Auvity makes the best of the small part; he is well suited for the role with his youthful looks and the innocent timbre of his instrument. In contrast to the Sun King, this Persée is not virile or god-like, but heroic nonetheless. Auvity is dedicated and focused in his duet with Andromède, Act II, Scene 6, “Ah! Vostre péril est estrême!”58 where his singing is flawless.

Of all the foreign and influential composers to settle in France,59 Lully was the first to achieve great fame and prestige, and the one to exert the most influence on “French” music, and on future generations of musicians and public, alike. Other composers may have achieved more fame, a better reputation, or may today be considered better composers, but only Lully achieved the well deserved title of “Father of French Opera.”60

Lully succeeded doing in France what Handel failed to do in England: the establishment of opera as a “national” art form—no small accomplishment when one considers the reverence for the spoken word (followed by ballet) in France. Unlike in Italy, where the voice and song had always had more prominence and acceptance over the spoken word, in France, the veneration of the theater combined with the negative image of Italian operatic pyrotechnics, not suited to the French language, made the acceptance of Italian opera, tenuous at best.

Not being credited with being a musical genius, Lully had an innate sense of drama and an unequalled understanding of musical values and French diction. He re-wrote the book on the use of recitative by replacing Italian recitativo secco with accompanied recitative, better suited to the French language. He made music subservient to the written word and insisted on beautiful, “distinguished and elegant diction which is still one of the glories of French lyric art.”61 For Lully, “[t]echnique and virtuosity were...less important than rhythmic accuracy and finesse in performance.”62 Lully expanded the French penchant for “grace and refinement” versus Italian “passion and emotion,” prevalent at the time, and injected drama and continuity to the recitatives. He blurred the line between recitative and aria; the use of “Italian” style arias with unnecessary high notes and frivolous singing was extremely curtailed, if not eliminated.

With Lully, the chorus and the ballet became an integral part of the drama,63 and in some instances, of each other,64 instead of a convenient prop to mask the change of scenery, or, as it would become two centuries later, an employment excuse for someone's love interest.65 Lully also expanded the orchestra and invented the French Overture,66 which he devised in three sections: “...a slow, massive first movement, then a lively fugal movement, then a melodious slow movement.”67 Lully wrote engaging music which presented realistic, vivid images of storms, thunder, battles, and celestial, infernal and pastoral settings. Aside from opera and orchestral music, Lully also composed Church music.68

Originally presented in 2000 by Opera Atelier, this DVD (EuroArts DVD 2054178) of Persée is from the 2004 revival production filmed at the Elgin Theater, Toronto, on April 28, 2004 and in cooperation with the CBC for television broadcast. This presentation of Lully's masterpiece goes a long way to dispel the notion that opera has to be stripped naked or dressed a la moderne in order to be approachable by new, or younger audiences. All it has ever taken is a little historical knowledge and producers who are well informed—not only about the score and libretto, but also about the subtleties of time and place—just like the producers of this DVD are. Overall, Lully's Persée could not get any better than this.

This Opera Atelier production is appropriate for a XVII Century performance at Versailles: Dora Rust-D'Eye's historically informed costumes are beautifully executed with superior attention to detail, and Gerard Gaucci's set design is faithful to the period. The stage is sparsely decorated with parquet floors, Louis XIV bergères and other period furnishings. Panels, representing columns in a palace hall, line the sides of the stage helping define the perspective; in the rear, different back-drops denote the various locations in the libretto: arches for the inside of the Ethiopian palace; a fountain to denote the gardens or the outdoors; clouds with superimposed swirls of red for Medusa's cave; stylized boulders and cut out waves for the shoreline, etc.69 In typical Baroque fashion, there are “mechanical” elements: Mercure's “cloud” surrounded by the rays of the sun, Venus' castle, a “mechanical” dragon that threatens Andromède, singers and dancers that “fly,” etc.

Not all is “period” or stale; there are carefully placed updated touches to appeal to modern audiences and to relieve some of the inherent formality of the piece: Jeanette Zingg's choreography shifts from traditional and “action” dances to stylized “modern,” and combinations of the two. Dora Rust-D'Eye's dance costumes cleverly mix contemporary idioms with traditional and baroque standards. In contrast to the principal singers who are always in period costume, Medusa and her sisters parody traditional ballet in their stylized movements and their modern travesti dress, as do three dancing gods from Hades who are dressed in flesh toned leotards adorned with swaths of red flames, or the two dancing cyclops who appear almost nude.

The stage direction by Marshall Pynkoski is in line with what today is known of Baroque stagings. Pynkoski has the singers behave as Greek actors, and not singers: they use stylized limited hand and arm movements; at times they stand stage front and sing to the audience rather than to each other, most noticeable in the Persée-Andromède love duet, “Ah! Vostre péril est extrême!”70 There are other smart elements in Pynkoski's direction: unbeknown to the theater audience or DVD viewers, a dancer replaces Persée for the hero's and Mercure's flight in search of Medusa. Persée's “flight” is in the form of grand Jetés while Mercure is carried away on a cloud.71 The dancer again re-appears as Persée, when the hero attacks the sea monster and liberates Andromède and, later in Act V, in the sword-fight scene. Medusa and her sisters/Gorgons are well acted as pouting “Drag Queens.” Though it originally received some criticism, this directional choice is not offensive, and the interpretation is valid: it would have been difficult for today's audiences, not familiar with Baroque opera, to understand the travesti scene—it was the Baroque performance practice to use male voices for unconventional, anomalous or ridiculous (as in comedy) female characters.72

There are other changes to the directions in the libretto; however, none that would have made great or negative impact. Overall, the opera is complete with some exceptions: as already mentioned, the Prologue was eliminated, as was Scene 4 in Act III where the Gorgons try to kill an invisible Persée after the hero's slaying of Medusa. Also eliminated is the beginning of Scene 7 in Act IV, prior to the Gigue, to avoid having both the dancing and the singing Persée together on stage, at the same time. The Ethiopians which follow the Gigue, in Act IV, Scene 7, are eliminated and their lines are sung by Mercure.

There are moments when the all important diction in French could use some improvement, or is not as clear as it could be; there are moments when a note is a bit forced, or a singer is short of breath. Yet, in spite of these minor moments, the young ensemble of singers is stellar, and displays a consistent aura of professionalism and performance quality more seasoned “stars” have yet to achieve. This group has also benefited from having sung together in any number of different productions for Opera Atelier as well as in other companies throughout North America.

Three other cast members are worthy of mention: Colin Ainsworth, Vilma Vitols, and Curtis Sullivan. While none of these singers have a major “star” role, they have charged their characters with larger importance through their interpretations.

Colin Ainsworth's lighty lyric tenor is an ideal instrument for Mercure who, as sung by Ainsworth, borders on being a Castrato role. One of Canada's emerging mezzo-sopranos, Vilma Vitol has an expressive instrument; she is capable of being a fierce Nymphe Guerrière and a regal Venus. Had it not been cut, it would have been interesting to see what Vitols would have done in the Prologue, as Venus. Versatile Bass-Baritone Curtis Sullivan is effective in his transformation from the lead Cyclop, to Sténone, one of Medusa's travesti Gorgons, to the lead Triton (who also dances), to the Grand Pêtre; the Gorgon being most memorable.73 To his many credits, Sullivan has added the role of Bluebeardd in the premiere of Howard Alexander's The Last Wife; Sullivan also appears as Sarastro, along with Olivier Laquerre, in The Mozart Diaries.

The all important Corps de Ballet so essential in Lully's works, here represented by the Artists of Atelier Ballet, is outstanding. The games for Juno, the Gigue and the Passacaille, are particularly rewarding.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of Hervé Niquet, and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir are without fault.

For a small company presenting a limited repertoire, and one that does not involve the “war horses,” Opera Atelier rivals any company with a large endowment and access to singers with more “star” power74

Lully died as he rose to power: in the service and under the protection of the king. Aside from the many royal patents issued to the composer, Lully was the beneficiary of the king's personal friendship: they were contemporaries, only five years apart, and as young men they had shared participation in many dance performances at court.75

As king, Louis XIV saw that Lully was always at his side and the composer was well rewarded for his dedication to the monarch. When Court gossip reached a fever point, and Madame de Maintenon's strict decorum was offended by Lully's openly homosexual lifestyle and public disregard to his marriage vows, Louis XIV reprimanded the composer, but the king's displeasure never went further that that—a perk that no one else enjoyed at court. Lully reciprocated the friendship and was well aware of the benefit of having the king on his side. In the dedication of the score of Phaëton, the composer writes to the monarch, “...the approbation that Your Majesty has given to this work has brought me the most profound joy I have yet felt.... It is also an Academy, made up of numerous musicians, that I present to you. You have given me permission to create it, I have devoted myself to its training [and] I finally have the satisfaction of seeing that the greatest King who ever ruled does not consider it unworthy of appearing before him.”

On January 6, 1687, the composer stubbed a toe while leading76 a Te Deum in celebration of the king's recovery from an illness. The wound did not heal properly and the composer refused to have an operation to stop the spread of gangrene; he died two months later, on March 22, 1687.

Lully was quoted in the Mercure de France saying that he had learned everything by the age of seventeen, and that he had spent the rest of his life perfecting that knowledge. Lully's dedication to perfecting his knowledge bore fruit in the Tragédie Lyrique, “...the only important independent offshoot of the Italian Baroque opera.”77 Eventually it rejoined its Italian counterpart but not before putting its own stamp on the art form. Lully's influence in opera is extensive, not only in style and structure, but in the number of other composers who followed his path.

“The public received this tragedy with an inexpressible satisfaction. Each day this work's brilliant and continued success makes obvious, even to those most likely to let themselves be swept away the novelty's charm, that what is truly beautiful never ages and sooner than later will regain its rights.”

No, this is not a review of Opera Atelier's Toronto performance, but one that appeared in Le Mercure de France in 1737 for a Paris Opéra revival of Lully's masterpiece, Persée. It is just as valid today.

Daniel Pardo © 2008

Liner Notes
Philippe Beaussant
© 1993 Harmonia Mundi

The Art of Singing
W. J. Anderson
© 1938 Dial Press
Dial Press, New York

Deborah Dunleavy

Dave Elkiakis

The Experience of Opera
Paul Henry Lang
© 1971 W.W. Norton & Co.
W.W. Norton & Co., New York

Great Composers 1300-1900
David Ewen
© 1966 H.W. Wilson Co.
H.W. Wilson Co., New York

The Great Singers
Henry Pleasants
© 1966 Henry Pleasants
Simon & Schuster, New York

George Frideric Handel
Paul Henry Lang
© 1966 W.W. Norton & Co.
W.W. Norton & Co., New York

The History of Music
Waldo Selden Pratt
© G. Shirmer, Inc.
G. Shirmer, New York

Journal of Seventeenth Century Music
Lois Rosow
© 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

Louis XIV
John B. Wolf
© 1968 W.W. Norton & Co.
W.W. Norton & Co., New York

Monstrous Opera
Charles Dill
© Princeton University Press
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ

The New Grove
Grench Baroque Masters
© 1980 James R. Anthony, H. Wiley Hitchock,
Edward Higginbottom, Graham Sadler, Albert Cohen
W.W. Norton & Co.
New York-London

The New Penguin Opera Guide
Amanda Holden, Editor
© 1993, 1995, 2001 Amanda Holden
Penguin Books
New York, London

Persée (DVD)
Liner Notes
Mathias Hengelbrock
© 2005 Euro Arts Music International

Persée (CD)
Liner Notes
Jean Duron
© 2001 CMVB, Jean Duron

Touched by the Graces: The Libretti of Philippe Quinault
in the Context of French Classicism
Buford Norman
© 2001 Summa Publications, Inc.
Birmingham, AL

What we Hear in Music
Anne Shaw Faulkner
© 1913, 1916, 1917, 1921, 1924, 1928
The Victor Talking Machine Company
© 1929, 1931 RCA Victor Co., Inc.
© 1936, 1939 RCA Manufacturing Co., Inc.
Camden, NJ

1 Today's standards of French Baroque are based on written information from the XVIII century

2 The formal name of the Paris Opéra

3 The French referred to their operas a “Lyric Tragedies” to emphasize the importance of language over music and to differentiate their style from that of their Italian counterparts.

4 King Louis XIV (September 5, 1638-September 1, 1715) was a regular dancer at the ballet performances given at Court theaters.

5 Poet Philippe Quinault was exiled for his negative depiction of the king's mistress, Madame de Montespan

6 Virtue: “Let us seek refuge from the oppressive grandeur of pomp; this retreat is tranquil and attractive.” A reference to Versailles as compared to the hectic life in Paris, and a nod to Madame de Maintenon who, in spite of being the king's new mistress, was “puritanical” and a strict follower of court decorum.

7 Virtue: “The prizes I bear you are not easily obtainable; they cost a thousand efforts and they make thousands jealous....”

8 Antonio García Gutiérrez' (July 5, 1812-August 6, 1884) El trovador (1836), later the basis for Verdi's Il trovatore, comes to mind.

9 Androméde's entrance, Act II, Scene V; Persée's entrance, Act II, Scene VI, etc.

10 Laquerre plays dual roles in this performance: Céphé, the king of Ethiopia, and the Gorgon, Medusa.

11 “I fear that Juno might refuse.”

12 “The gods punish arrogance.”

13 Laquerre won First Prize

14 “I have lost my beauty.”

15 “Joyful wife, joyful mother,” and “Through a cruel punishment,” respectively

16 “Oh! Juno, powerful godess.”

17 “Oh! Such dreadful torture!”

18 “Alas, I am going to lose my daughter!”

19 “It is my deadly vanity”

20 The son of a Paris master baker, French poet, dramatist, and librettist, Philippe Quinault (June 3, 1635, Paris-November 26, 1688, Paris) was educated at the urging and with the help of Françoise Tristan l'Hermite, author of Marianne, and for whom the young man worked as a valet. From 1646 to 1651, Quinault studied with Maître êcrivanPhilippe Mareschal who taught him enough Latin to enable the student to qualify for studies at the Collège du Cardinal Lemoyne. At the age of eighteen, Quinault successfully staged his frist play, the comedy, Les Rivalesin 1653,at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. He wrote close to twenty other comedies, tragi-comedies, and tragedies, in the next seventeen years: La mère coquette(1653; La géneréuse ingratitude(1654); L'amant indiscret ou le Maître étourdi(1654); La comédie sans comédie(1655); Les coups de l'Amour et de la Fortunein collaboration with Tristan (1655); Le marriage de Cambyse(1656); Fedra(1656); Amalasonte(1657); Le feint Alcibiade(1658); Le fantôme amoreux(1659); La mort de Cyrus(1659); Stratonice(1660); Agrippa ou le faux Tiberinus(1662); Astrate, roi de Tyr(1664); La mêre coquette(1665); La grotte de Versailles(1668); Pausanias(1668); and Bellérophon(1671).

Success was not slow in coming. After the premiere of Les Rivales, Quinault became a lawyer, and in 1660 married a wealthy widow, Louise Goujon, whose finances helped him secure a position at court as “escuyer, valet de chambre du Roi.” Quinault was elected to the Académie Française in 1670, and became one of the original members of the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Medailles, better known as “Le Petite Académie,” in 1674.

After much fame and success, the turning point in Quinault's career came in 1671 when, along with Molière and Corneille (who provided the spoken dialogue), he was asked to contribute the poetry for Psychéwhich was set to music by Lully, and for whom Quinault wrote thirteen other libretti: two large scale ballets, Le triomphe de l'amour(1681), and Le temple de la paix(1685), and eleven operas.

While Boileau, La Fontaine and Racine, among others, delighted in criticizing Quinault's verses as long winded and monotonous, and for adding more than necessary importance to secondary characters, Quinault's genius rests in his mastery of the language and his ability to suggest so much with so few words; he, more than most, understood and applied the importance of pitch in the voice as it rises or falls, and the timing and length of a pause to heighten the meaning of a word. His years as a playwright gave Quinault unusual insight into the musicality of words and lyric poetry, which he put to great use in the libretti he wrote for Lully.

Quinault organized words into certain patterns to denote, intensify, or emphasize the dramatic situation or mental state of the characters, and to fit the speed of delivery by the addition or deletion of a vowel or consonant. Lully, who organized sounds in a similar fashion, easily understood Quinault's technique, and wrote appropriate music to heighten the intensity of the prose.

Aside from plays and libretti, Quinault also wrote more than sixty airs, divertissements, and several ballet plots, Lysis et Herpérie(1660); Les ballet des muses(1666); Les fêtes de l'Amour et de Bacchus(1672); Le triomphe de l'amour(1681), and Le Temple de la paix(1685) among them.

Little known today, Philippe Quinault was, in his lifetime and for many years after, on a par with the greatest men of letters: he worked alongside of Molière and Corneille, his rivalry with Racine is the stuff of legend, and his plays enjoyed long runs; many were played well into the Nineteenth Century. Of the eleven opera libretti Quinault wrote for Lully, four were used by later composers: Armide(Gluck and Myslivecek); Atysand Roland(Piccini); and Prosperine(Paisiello).

Ill health forced Quinault to request the release from his post as official librettist. In April 1686 the king, Louis XIV, granted the writer a pension and decorated him with the Order of Saint-Michel. Quinault was 53 years old when he died two years later, on November 26, 1688.

21 Madame de Montespan, October 5, 1641-May 27, 1707

22 Vis a vis the discarded mistress, Madame de Montespan

23 By 1667, Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouard-Mortemart (October 15-May 27, 1707), marquise de Montespan, had replaced Louise de la Vallière as the king's mistress; a position she held until the king fancied Françoise d'Aubigne, Madame Scarron (1635-1719), the governess to the King's and Madame de Montespan's illegitimate children. In 1675, Louis XIV gave d'Aubigne the title of Madame de Maintenon and by the time of Persée's first performance (1682), she had become the official mistress to the king. They were secretly married in 1683.

24 The king, Céphée; his wife, Cassiope; her sister, Merope; and the king's brother Phinée.

25 Madame de Montespan eventually joined a convent.

26 “The son of Jupiter adores her...My conqueror even to this day.”

27 “I would die of shame and anger.”

28 “I would fain keep my heart.”

29 “The possibility of their marriage satisfies my desires and is my last hope”... “What differences are capable of breaking such elegant knots?”

30 “Oh! Death!”

31 Monica Whicher Web Page

32 “Believe me, believe me.”

33 “He is loved by those he loves.”

34 “We share the same pain.”

35 “Hearts in love and jealous are a hundred times more troubled than you.”

36 “The gods are intent on seeking revenge; I can barely conceal the pleasure.”

37 “What could her anger not achieve”

38 “Happy is the mortal who can enjoy such sweet revenge”

39 “In its formative years in the seventeenth century, opera seria was more spectacle than music, and the early Venetian stage mechanics and scene painters contrived wondrous representations of battles, earthquakes, floods, thunder and lighting, conflagrations and fat clouds bursting to reveal heavenly choirs....The most elaborate of such productions were reserved for special occasions—a coronation, a royal wedding or birth, [or] a state visit....” Pleasants, 1966, pg. 30

In this respect, French and Italian stage presentations were no different: a visual orgy of mechanical fantasy, elaborate scenery and spectacular costumes. This practice originated in 1637 Venice with the first opera to be publicly performed, Andromeda, text by Benedetto Ferrari (c. 1603-1681) and music by Francesco Manelli (1595-1667).

40 At this time in France, the term “Opera” was reserved for works composed in the “Italian” style.

41 Born in Lyon, Pierre Perrin (1620-1675) arrived in Paris in 1628; there, he worked in the household of the Duke of Orleans. Perrin was a poet, a dancer, and dabbled in music.

42 The precurson to the Académie Royal de musique

43 In spite of the many setbacks that befell the opening of the Paris Académie, Pomoneenjoyed an eight month run

44 Composer Robert Cambert (1628-1677) first appears in Paris as an organist and by 1627 he had set some of Perrin's poems to music. Two years later they cooperated on the Pastorale d'Issy which was followed by a commission from Cardinal Mazarin for another Pastorale, Ariane, ou Le mariage de Bacchus. Along with Perrin, Cambert obtained a privilege to establish Royal Académies, the first of which opened in Paris in 1671 with Cambert's and Perrin's opera, Pomone. After Perrin's imprisonment and Lully's ascent, Cambert went to the court of Charles II in England where, in 1677, he committed suicide.

Perrin's partership with Robert Cambert, the Marquis de Sourdéac and Laurent Bersac, Sieur de Champeron, had a promising start, but from early on there were managerial and financial problems which culminated with embezzlement. Three months into the run of Pomone, the singers had not been paid, and twice Perrin was incarcerated for debt and eventually forced to sell part of his interest to his associates

45 In order to silence the opposition, Louis XIV ordered the Lieutenant of Police to close down Perrin's theater. The king also revoked all privileges previously granted to Perrin—in effect eliminating any claims by Perrin's partners to the 1669 patent

46 Even more than Perrin whose patent gave him a monopoly on opera production for only 12 years

47 Lully has been accused of being ruthless and greedy. In retrospect, he acted in accordance to the standard of the time and as everyone else did in order to survive the self-serving and backstabbing court environment. If anything, Lully may have been more restrained and savvier than other courtiers: early on, Louis XIV had granted Lully a patent to nobility which entitled the composer to the aristocratic “de” before his last name. Lully waited to put the patent to use until after purchasing the post of Secréaire du Roi, in 1681, at a time when no one could dispute his position, prestige, and power at court. From then on, the composer signed his name “de Lully” and was addressed as “Monsieur de Lully”

48 The character of Mérope was borrowed by Quinault from a Venetian opera on the same subject, Andromeda, with libretto by Benedetto Ferrari, music by Francesco Manelli

49 Persée is faithful to the structure of the pastorale en musique which Lully collaborated with Moliere: prologue, five acts, aristocratic escapism, elaborate stagings, etc.

50 Persée CD Liner Notes, pg. 25

51 In this DVD, Persée and Andromède make cameo appearances in Act I. In this and in subsequent acts other characters, too, make cameo appearances contrary to the directions in the libretto

52 When confronted by Andromède (“If you were to win...would you seek to break these bonds?”), Persée replies with “kingly” virtue: “I shall be unhappy...[b]ut I shall die contented if you can live happily.”

53 “Unfortunate those, whom a terrible monster...He loves me much....”

54 “You love him”

55 “Gods, you who have predestined me”

56 “No, do not delude yourself[,] you love me in vain; Phineus has won my heart....What, are you leaving me forever, Perseus? Stay, stay...You are in extreme peril!...Oh gods! Save him whom I love.”

57 One wonders why Louis XIV would have picked the subject matter for this opera. The hero in Ovid's tales does not so much conquer Medusa on his own merits as Louis XIV had done to conquer his enemies. Persée is aided by the gods to become invisible, he is given a protective shield, a sword, and wings to aid him in his venture while Medusa is put to sleep, therefore rendering her helpless and an easy prey for Persée's execution. There are, however, attributes in the mythological hero which the Sun King may have seen as a parallel: Persée's favorite status with the gods and his dedication and victory over evil for the benefit and protection of the people of Ethiopia. Like all kings, before and after him, Louis XIV believed in the Divine Right to rule and he viewed himself as the benevolent protector of the people.

58 “Ah! You are in extreme peril!”

59 Gluck, Cherubini, Spontini, Meyerbeer, Offenbach, Rossini, Hahn, Stravinsky and others settled in France, where they became internationally known.

60 Though the title of “Father of French Opera” is well suited for Lully, the title of “First Composer” of French opera goes to Robert Cambert, Maître de Musiqueto the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria. His opera, Pomone(1671), was an immediate success when it premiered at the Académie. Some say that Cambert's earlier work, Pastorale d'Issy(1659) is the first French play set to music; however, that honor goes to Charles de Bey's and Michel de La Guerre's Le triomphe de l'Amour(1655). Pierre Corneille's Andromèdawas the first work to incorporate the different arts in a French machine play

61 Henderson, 1938, p.137

62 Anthony, 1980, p. 42

63 In Persée, the libretto calls for a ballet in all acts except Act III which calls for the actors to “fly”

64 Medusa and her Gorgons are required to move around the stage in a stylized “dance” and one triton is required to sing, as well

65 The ballet in the French Grand Opera of the Nineteenth Century always took place in the third act to coincide with the entrance into the theater of the well to do male patrons, whose mistresses were members of the corps de ballet

66 This style of “Overture” influenced Handel, Bach, and Haydn who used its structure in the development of the Sonata

67 History of Music, 1907, p. 241

68 With Molière, Lully wrote the Comedies-Ballets: Le mariage forcé(1664); La princesse d'Elide(1664); L'amour médicin(1665); Le Sicilien(1667); Georges Dandin(1668); Monsieur de Purceaugnac(1669); Les amants magnifiques(1670) and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme(1670).

Lully composed a number of Tragédies en musique, most to a libretto by Philippe Quinqult: Les fêtes de l'Amour et de Bacchus(Pastiche assembled by P. Quinault from fragments of different ballets, 1672); Cadmus et Hermione(P. Quinault, 1673); Alceste(P. Quinault, 1674); Thésée(P. Quinault, 1675); Atys(P. Quinault, 1676); Isis(P. Quinault, 1677); Psyché(Thomas Corneille, 1678); Bellérophon(T. Corneille and Berbard le Bovier de Fontenelle, 1679); Prosperine(P. Quinault 1680); Persée(P. Quinault, 1682); Phaëton(P. Quinault, 1683); Amadis de Gaule(P. Quinault, 1684); Roland(P. Quinault, 1685);Armide(P. Quinault, 1686); Acis et Galathée(Pastoral-héroïque in prologue and three acts by Jean Galbert de Campistron, 1686); Achille et Polixène(J. Galbert de Campistron, produced posthumously,1687) Choral Music: Motets for 2 Choirs (1684); Miserere (1664); Te Deum (1677); De Profundis (1683); 5 Grand Motets (1685)

69 Just as in Lully's time, this kind of staging is necessitated by the need to house the many dancers required for the ballets in the opera. In some scenes, the limited size of the Elgin Theater also necessitated the use of side, proscenium boxes for the chorus and other singers

70 “Ah! Your peril is extreme.” Act II, Scene 6

71 There is no mention of the dancer's name in the credits, but the benefit of “rewind” gives the DVD viewers an advantage over those present in the theater. Though the dancing double looks like, and is dressed just like Persée, one can tell them apart, in the close-up shots, in what little of the face remains to be seen under the helmet

72 One criticism of the comedic aspect of this scene is that by the time of Persée, “comedy” had disappeared from Lully's operas

73 Sullivan also makes a cameo appearance in a non speaking role in Act V, Scene 8

74 Until recently, Baroque opera, with the exception of Mozart, some Gluck and Handel, is not as well known in the United States and few companies risk giving such performances: audience interest is limited. One exception is New York City Opera's commitment to presenting all of Handel's operas, as well as presenting Monteverdi, Gluck, and Rameau. Other than scenes or arias in concerts, starting in 1884, the Met ventured into this territory with Handel's Messiah in 1895 and again in 1902. After an eighty two year hiatus, Handel returned with a production of Rinaldo (1984), Samson (1986), Giulio Cesare (1988, 1999, 2000, 2007), and Rodelinda (2004, 2005, 2006). Gluck has fared better starting with Orfeo et Euridice (1885, 1891, 1893, 1895, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1914, 1936, 1938, 1941, 1955, 1957, 1962, 1970, 1972, 2007), Armide (1910, 1911, 1912), Iphiginie en Tauride (1916, 2007), and Alceste (1941, 1952, 1960). Rameau is absent and Monteverdi is represented as part of a concert with one performance of L'Orfeo, sung in English (1912).

75 On February 23, 1653, fifteen year old Louis XIV and Lully took part in Ballet de la nuit—an allegory to the passing of time from night to day, from darkness to light. First performed at the the Louvre, Salle du Petit-Bourbon, the ballet was commissioned to celebrate the defeat of the Fronde and the king's return to Paris. There are conflicting stories as to who the librettist or the composer was, though some attribute the music to Lully.

From birth, Louis XIV has been associated with the Sun. In his monumental biography, Louis XIV, historian John B. Wolf relates how the French mint struck a coin to commemorate the long awaited birth of a male heir to the French throne: twenty three years. The coin bore the inscription Orbus Solis Gallici(Thus rises the sun of France) in reference, as was the custom, to classical antiquity, its myths and legends and the association of kings and rulers with the life-giving sun, or Apollo, God of the Sun.

However, it is generally accepted that it is from the character of the same name that the king danced in Ballet de la nuit, and the lithographs of the king in costume, that the sobriquet of “The Sun King” became forever associated with Louis XIV.

76 Louis XIV was the first monarch to have a court “conductor” in the modern sense of the word.

77 Lang, Experience of Opera 1971, p.23

image= image_description=Jean-Baptiste Lully: Persée product=yes product_title=Jean-Baptiste Lully: Persée product_by=Cyril Auvity, Marie Lenormand, Stephanie Novacek, Monica Whicher, Olivier Laquerre, Alain Coulombe. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra & Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. Hervé Niquet, conductor. Directed for Stage by Marshall Pynkoski. Directed for TV by Marc Stone. product_id=EuroArts 2054178 [DVD] price=$25.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 12:00 PM

A powerful, poignant Elektra at the Royal Opera House, London

Despite his extensive experience, this is Mark Elder’s first Elektra. He was adamant that the characterization should reflect the music. Elektra’s part is surprisingly tender at times. Twisted by fate, she’s become wild, but beneath the madness still lurks the real woman Elektra might have been. This makes her tragedy all the more poignant. The real drama here doesn’t lie in decibels. Orchestrally, this was superb. Elder understands the inner dynamic of the music, grasping the fine detail sometimes lost in the vast sweep. Harsh, dry percussion punctuates the beating of the maids. They, too, are victims of the brutal regime. The fifth maid, who protests, is destroyed, as Elektra will be. The playing was so well judged that this would have made a superb recording, even without the visuals.

Yet what visuals ! A monstrous Bauhaus monolith is set at an awkward angle against a Greek temple. These architectural fault lines remind us that Elektra is powerful political commentary. Klytemnestra murdered Agamemnon to seize his kingdom, but she can’t enjoy power, her nightmares pursue her. Elektra is duty bound to avenge her father, but she’s irrevocably warped by it, and cannot live past retribution. As for Orestes, who will now be king ? Neither Strauss nor von Hofmannsthal make this explicit in the opera, but they knew, and their audiences knew, Orestes continues to be punished by the Gods. This production was conceived at the start of the Iraq war although it references that turning point in European history, just before the collapse of the Austrian, German and Russian empires. If anything, recent events like the failure of the banking system, reinforce the point that power is an illusion, easily destroyed. Nothing’s stable : Aegisth whirls round, dying, in a revolving door.

In this palace, family values are dysfunctional. There are disturbing sexual undercurrents in all relationships. Perceptively, however this production doesn’t play up the kinkiness, but places it firmly in the context of the power crazed society around the palace. Everyone is trapped in this brutal situation. Hence the production accentuates the importance of the maids and subsidiary characters, expanding them as silent roles.

Susan Bullock as Elektra is outstanding. Because this interpretation makes her sympathetic, Bullock can develop the more subtle aspects of Elektra’s personality. She’s no screaming mad harpie. There are many traces of the woman she might have become. She mocks the maids for having children, yet understands why Chrysothemis wants babies. The dynamic between Elektra and Chrysothemis (beautifully realized by Anne Schwanewilms), is lucidly defined. “Ich kann nicht sitzen und ins Dunkel starren wie du “, cries Chrysothemis. It helps explain why, at her moment of triumph, Elektra deflates. She has nothing to sustain her but vengeance and must die when she achieves it. Her final dance is slow, barely perceptible, as if she’s sinking into the very ground, carrying the “burden of happiness” which no longer has meaning.

Elektra_ROH_002.pngA scene from Elektra [Photo by Clive Barda]

Orestes is the finest part I’ve seen Johan Reuter play so far, and it suits him well. So much more can be made of Klytemnestra and Aegisth than Jane Henschel and Frank van Aken presented, but in theatrical terms this was no real loss, as it didn’t pull focus away from the sisters and Orestes, and the wider drama around them. Rarely does lighting merit a mention, but this time it was exceptionally effective. Agamemnon features prominently as a silent role, his “ghost” projected onto the walls of his palace. When Elektra sings to Orestes of “Der milchige des Monds”, a faint, but persistent light shines on the corrugated panoply above her. It’s a tiny detail, easily missed, but that moment of beauty throws the tragedy into high relief. This Elektra becomes more profoundly moving, the more it unfolds.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysothemis and Susan Bullock as Elektra [Photo by Clive Barda] product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss : Elektra product_by=Susan Bullock (Elektra), Anne Schwanewilms (Chrysothemis), Jane Henschel (Klytemnestra), Johan Reuter (Orestes), Frank van Aken (Aegisth), Frances McCafferty, Monika-Evelin Liiv, Kathleen Wilkinson, Elizabeth Woollett, Eri Nakamura (Maids) Charles Edwards, (Director, Design and Lighting), Mark Elder (Conductor), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, London. product_id=Above: Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysothemis and Susan Bullock as Elektra [Photo by Clive Barda]
Posted by Gary at 10:56 AM

Aïda – English National Opera, London Coliseum

Traditional stagings of 19th-century opera have become something of an embarrassment to a genre which is still struggling to shake off the clichés which haunt its perception in non-opera-going circles. This is in spite of there still being a keen and thriving audience for those clichés; you need only look at the popularity of the Eastern European touring outfits which, with cardboard sets and cardboard acting, keep the standard repertoire alive in provincial theatres around the UK.

Jo Davies’ production of Aïda for ENO and Houston, which was first seen here in London a year ago, is not made of cardboard (though sometimes it looks as if it is made out of gift-wrap). Nor is it lacking in visual imagination, with its wacky turquoise and gold designs by Zandra Rhodes. Still, it ticks enough unfashionable boxes to guarantee divided opinions from opera aficionados and the theatrical establishment. Static direction – check; “spectacular” sets and effects – check; appeal to the masses – check. Remind me – why exactly is that last point a bad thing?

With last year’s cast returning almost wholesale, the revival was a known quantity, though a non-specific announcement was made at the start to excuse the possibility that several of the principals might not be at full strength having been unwell earlier in the week. Further investigation yielded the fact that this included both female leads, though here on the first night there was little to fault their performances. In the title role, Claire Rutter’s bright-toned soprano soared above the large ensembles but also made beautifully delicate work of ‘O patria mia’, and although Jane Dutton’s all-guns-blazing dramatic delivery often came at the expense of tonal beauty, her Amneris was always a force to be reckoned with.

Perhaps the most impressive singing of all came from Iain Paterson as Amonasro; his lovely legato and depth of emotional expression made me long to hear him in other Verdi ‘father’ roles.

The strength in John Hudson’s Radamès seemed to lie in different areas this time around – the big moments at the end of Acts 1 and 3 were thrilling, but his attempt at the diminuendo at the end of ‘Celeste Aïda’ didn’t come as easily. Matthew Best, the only major newcomer to the production, was a verbally incisive and vocally authoritative Ramfis. Only the Pharaoh, Gwynne Howell, celebrating the 40th anniversary of his company début, sounded threadbare and tired, though he remains a major asset to the cast thanks to his delivery of the words.

Aida_008.pngJohn Hudson as Radames and Jane Dutton as Amneris [Photo by Alastair Muir]

Ah yes, the words. Unfortunately, Edmund Tracey’s translation sounds dated, with ungainly vocabulary and some truly cringe-worthy rhymes (‘Death, o King, to the savage invaders/Close your hearts when they try to persuade us’) and often presents the singers with tricky or ugly vowels on difficult notes. It didn’t help that two days after opening night, I heard a concert performance in Italian of the same opera, which only served to underline how much better the original Italian text works with the musical line. Verdi and his 19th-century compatriots are particularly hard to render in English; I don’t think I’ve ever heard a truly successful English singing version of any Verdi opera, whereas Handel, Mozart, Puccini and Janáček can all be perfectly convincing given the services of a skilled word-setter. The shortcomings of some of the translations have become increasingly evident since ENO introduced surtitles.

The conductor, Gérard Korsten, who is new to the production, favoured slow tempi which lent an air of stateliness and grandeur to some of the large public scenes, but which made parts of the solo arias rather sluggish. The on-stage trumpets were out of time, too – I hope this will be sorted out before the next performance.

Aida_011.pngIain Paterson as Amonasro and Claire Rutter as Aida [Photo by Tristram Kenton]

Sometimes the staging’s superficiality is a little overpowering, and it is frustrating that only Aïda herself consistently exceeds two dimensions. Only in the Nile Scene, and the great sequence for Amneris which follows, do we really start to see what motivates the principal characters. Though this is partly a result of the way the piece is structured, with its grand public scenes dwarfing the protagonists’ personal struggles, it’s the director’s job to give them real definition. Even so, this remains an eminently sensible production of an operatic classic.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image= image_description=Claire Rutter as Aida [Photo by Tristram Kenton] product=yes product_title= product_by=Aida (Claire Rutter); Amneris (Jane Dutton); Radames (John Hudson); Amonasro (Iain Paterson); Ramfis (Matthew Best); The King (Gwynne Howell); High Priestess (Sarah-Jane Davies). English National Opera. Conductor: Gérard Korsten (Oct 22, 25, 30; Nov 8, 11, 14, 20, 22); Leo Hussain (Nov 1 & 6). Director: Jo Davies. product_id=Above: Claire Rutter as Aïda [Photo by Tristram Kenton]
Posted by Gary at 10:26 AM

November 12, 2008

Sarah Connolly, Romeo and Giulietta

David Whetstone [ The Journal, 11 November 2008]

A CRITIC described Sarah Connolly as a mezzo soprano “internationally adored for her luxury, chocolate liqueur voice as much as for her thrilling theatrical intensity on stage”.

Posted by Gary at 8:10 AM

Oppenheimer the Opera: A review of Doctor Atomic

By Michael Shermer [Scientific American, 11 November 2008]

There are certain characters in science who stand out for their larger-than-science characteristics: Galileo and his conflicts with Papal authorities; Albert Einstein and his political dabblings and pacifist overtures; Richard Feynman and his safecracking, storytelling antics; Stephen Hawking and his ethereal brain trapped in a frozen body. Biographies, documentaries, films, and even plays have attempted to capture the essence of these giants (see QED, for example, the play starring Alan Alda as Feynman). But to my knowledge, none have had an opera produced in their likeness.

Posted by Gary at 8:05 AM

His Godunov just isn't good enough

Rupert Christiansen [The Daily Telegraph, 11 November 2008]

“The composer’s original thoughts” are a sacred commodity in music today, a crucial aspect of the fetishistic worship of “authenticity”. But sometimes one wishes that his revisions, corrections and mature reflections would be given their due, too.

Posted by Gary at 8:01 AM

La damnation de Faust, Metropolitan Opera, NY

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 10 November 2008]

Robert Lepage came to the Met on Friday and brought along a big bag of technological tricks. The object of his potential illumination: Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust, an ecstatic yet static légende dramatique that hardly requires special effects.

Posted by Gary at 7:19 AM

Handel's 'Caesar' a musical delight

By Timothy McDonald [Kansas City Star, 10 November 2008]

And you thought you had problems! In the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s current production of Julius Caesar, the audience witnesses a decapitated head, royal squabbles galore and suicide attempts. Well, no one ever said life in opera was simple.

Posted by Gary at 7:14 AM

November 10, 2008

Elektra's score is revelatory

By Barry Millington [Evening Standard, 10 November 2008]

After hearing the news of the hated Aegisth’s murder, Elektra disports herself in a wild, triumphal dance. Susan Bullock brings her searing performance in the title role of Covent Garden’s revival of Strauss’s opera to a climax with a maenadic sequence of earthy physicality before submitting to a bloody death herself.

Posted by Gary at 9:09 AM

Mortier Stiffs City Opera; Met Drops a Bomb, Welcomes Faust

Manuela Hoelterhoff [Bloomberg, 10 November 2008]

In a matter of hours, and they seemed like days, I caught up with new productions of John Adams's "Doctor Atomic" and Hector Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust" at the Metropolitan Opera.

Posted by Gary at 9:02 AM

WNO's 'Carmen': Its Charms Are All Too Familiar

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 10 November 2008]

It’s interesting to imagine what it would be like if a professional theater company staged “Hamlet” the way most professional opera companies stage “Carmen.”

Posted by Gary at 8:58 AM

Between Hell and Heaven, a World of Morphing Imagery

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 10 November 2008]

The most talked-about element of the director Robert Lepage’s new production of Berlioz’s “Damnation de Faust” for the Metropolitan Opera, which opened on Friday night, is sure to be its stunning use of video imagery. Working with the interactive video designer Holger Förterer, Mr. Lepage has created a staging in which eerily detailed video depictions of everything from a grassy field to a fiery hell shift and morph in response to the movements and singing of the cast and chorus.

Posted by Gary at 8:56 AM

That 'Lulu' that you do so well

BY ANDREW PATNER [Chicago Sun-Times, 10 November 2008]

In a season heavily weighted toward the lesser-known and rarely produced, Lyric Opera of Chicago already has scored its second tremendous success, and this time it has done so with a musical masterwork as well as a top-flight cast, superb orchestra and brilliant production.

Posted by Gary at 8:53 AM

Susan Bullock on how Elektra took her through hell and high Cs

Neil Fisher [Times Online, 8 November 2008]

I hear Susan Bullock before I actually meet her. And what I hear is pretty disturbing. I am skulking through the vaults of the Royal Opera House; her powerful soprano, with its rich vibrato wrapped around a steely core, is blasting out of the Tannoy on the wall. And, if I know my Richard Strauss, Bullock is currently urging her long-lost brother to kill her mother. With an axe. That her character has been keeping in a hole in the dirt. Which is also where she lives.

Posted by Gary at 8:18 AM

November 9, 2008

L’elisir d’amore in San Francisco

Our worst fears came true at the opening of L’elisir d’amore when the curtain rose to reveal a bandstand right out of a Kansas farm town sitting center stage, instilling the dread that it was going to sit there all night. It did.

The joke was on us. The singers, looking like they were stepping out of a retro production of Oklahoma, were absolutely dripping with the credits that comfort all opera snobs. In fact you asked yourself how all this high operatic horsepower could find itself in the middle of Republican, mid-western America. But a Mexican tenor, an Albanian soprano, two Italian buffos, even a Korean soubrette stepped right out onto that bandstand and made Oklahoma or Nebraska their own.

Elixir_SFO_068.pngGiorgio Caoduro (Belcore)
It was a perfect fit. This edition of Donizetti’s one hundred seventy five year old opera about rustics in Northern Spain had all the trappings of pre-World War I rural America as envisioned by American stage director Jim Robinson. What we saw was was not the Midwest as illustrated by this scenery for earlier versions of the Robinson production, but a special San Francisco version. In fact it was “Harvest Day” celebration in Napa Valley. Albanian soprano Inva Mula was “Crush Queen,” and we were quickly swept into the wine country flow.

The Elixir of Love (as it was named in San Francisco even though it was sung in Italian and should have been called L’elisir d’amore) is a perfectly constructed little “numbers” opera. The plot is carefully made so that the succession of arias, duets and trios is foremost an opportunity for singers to show their stuff and then coincidentally a means by which to move this nineteenth century sentimental opera buffa story along. All this happened with the utmost ease, the grace of bel canto echoed in the grace by which sight gag after sight gag flowed throughout the evening, footballs sailing in great arches across the back of the stage during the first act finale.

Life was good in those old days, pleasures were simple — apple pies, layer cakes and ice cream sundaes. Bel canto is a downright delicious confection too, so all this went into the same pot. Nemorino and Adina were as interested in ice cream as they were in each other, Belcore devoured an entire apple pie, Dr. Dulcamara picked at leftover tidbits of fried chicken and potato salad from the potluck. And through all of this gourmandaise, Italian conductor Bruno Campanella, another star of bel canto, never missed a beat, keeping the singers in musical rapture from the first note to the last.

Elixir_SFO_134.pngAlessandro Corbelli (Dulcamara)

These were the really old days when even simple country folk could afford (almost) a Napa cabernet. Nemorino, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas, downed his two bottles and never faltered from consummate Italian tenorial schooling, even while dancing the two step, a tango or the doing the Lindy. Not to mention the consummate charm he exuded while catching a flying piece of apple in his open mouth.

Soprano Inva Mula is no shrinking violet. With her girlish figure and full scale vocalism she easily took center stage as the town diva, relentlessly teasing Nemorino while being swept off her feet (literally) by the irresistible Belcore. The pleasures she brought to the bandstand were as much her fine, rich, very stylish singing as was her warm, natural presence. This Adina was never coy, she was always intensely vocal as a bel canto diva should be.

The role of the lady killer Sargent Belcore was an easy fit for young Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro, his swagger a natural one, his fluid baritone breaking into Donizetti’s giddy coloratura with utmost ease, communicating an inborn sense of fun, a strong dedication to Italianate high style, and a go-for-broke physicality when he ended up tackled under a pile of his recruits (the high-school football team) or doubled over, punched in the nuts by Nemorino.

Too often San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows are thrown into important roles before they are mature enough to take them on. Not so the Gianetta of Ji Young Yang. Here is a charming, finished singer who will soon be an Adina in her own right.

Elixir_SFO_494.pngA scene from Act II

The purple suited shyster Dr. Dulcamara, bass-baritone Alessandro Corbelli, exploited his native Italian to the fullest, every syllable flying across the pit into the house, making his Italian so understandable that it seemed to pass for real American. The lively, inventive San Francisco Opera Chorus that eagerly lined up to buy the elixir seemed as delighted and gullible as was the audience, clearly eating up every nuance of bel canto and Americana. And finally it dawned on Dr. Dulcamara, as Robert Mondavi was just then learning and we all now know, that he had the best elixir around — a Napa cabernet.

It is all to rare that productions by American directors find there way onto major American stages. James Robinson gave San Francisco audiences enjoyment that was specifically American, designer Allen Moyer provided brilliant, minimalist scenery with subtle detail that was as delicious as Donizetti’s coloratura. Yet another American, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, though no stranger to big-time international opera, gave us costumes worthy of Broadway. Central to the success of this fine production were the supertitles written by Jerry Sherk and Francesca Zambello.

Michael Milenski

image= image_description=Ramón Vargas (Nemorino) and Inva Mula (Adina) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera] product=yes product_title=G. Donizetti: The Elixir of Love product_by=Adina (Inva Mula), Nemorino (Ramón Vargas), Belcore (Giorgio Caoduro), Dulcamara (Alessandro Corbelli), Giannetta (Ji Young Yang). San Francisco Opera. Bruno Campanella, conductor. James Robinson, director. product_id=Above: Ramón Vargas (Nemorino) and Inva Mula (Adina)

All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera
Posted by Gary at 1:46 PM

Muti's La Traviata

Your reviewer will resist the urge to consider this an attempt to get a few more sales out of a La Traviata that may not stand up so well in comparison to the many other versions of the opera on the market.

Unless one is a Ricardo Muti fan. That seems to be the selling point of John Osborne’s booklet essay, where due respect is first paid to Arturo Toscanini (“Muti’s distinguished predecessor”) before Muti’s version earns praise for being “tautly, elegantly, and yet at the same time expressively conducted.” Tautly, yes, to the point of a sort of manic rigidity. Elegantly and expressively will be in the ears of the listeners; those qualities escaped your reviewer’s. Muti wanted a “feeling of urgency - even feverishness,” and he got that, from first note to last. Charm, sensuality, pathos make only fleeting impressions. The first act especially loses much of its romantic appeal, an essential element for setting up the tragedy of the ensuing acts. Muti also makes a point - a heavily underlined one - of getting a “banda”-like sound from the orchestra for the party music, and in the crystal clear sound, the effect is mannered.

1980 finds both Renata Scotto and Alfredo Kraus in their maturity as singers. That means they both give professional, technically secure readings. And it also means neither sounds youthful. Scotto’s top never settles, and in legato lines, a wobble interferes. In all likelihood, the credit for any “elegance” this set has goes to Kraus. Beyond that, his instrument isn’t quite lush enough to make the most of Alfredo’s best music. That being said, the final duet for Alfredo and Violetta goes very well. Renato Bruson is in prime voice, if anyone wants a Traviata where the best singing comes from Papa Germont. That character’s cabaletta at the end of act two, scene one, is included, as Muti delivers the score uncut. Your reviewer could have done without the second verse of “Addio del passato,” where other sopranos have made him regret its omission.

Fans of the conductor and/or singers have the right to disagree and heartily endorse EMI’s decision to deem this one of the “Great Recordings of the Century.” There are certainly plenty of alternatives for those of us who want some more flexibility and beauty in Verdi’s masterpiece.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=G. Verdi: La Traviata

product=yes producttitle=G. Verdi: La Traviata productby= Roderick Kennedy, Alfredo Kraus, Sarah Walker, Renato Bruson, Renata Scotto, Cynthia Buchan, Suso Mariategui. Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra. Ricardo Muti, conductor. productid=Angel 5099950969425; EMI Classics 5099950969456 [2CDs] price=$23.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 1:24 PM

Ernani and I Capuletti e I Montecchi on Dynamic DVD

Sound and picture are excellent for both, and the performances, while not first-class, feature solid singing and tasteful productions. Despite those merits, neither DVD makes for a truly satisfying experience. Verdi’s early hit should be more exciting; Bellini’s take on the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet could use more style. The catalog doesn’t exactly run over with these two titles, on the other hand.

As seems to be typical of most of the productions Dynamic chooses to film, the sets tend to the spartan - neither of these have much scenery or even props. The budget, apparently, goes to costumes. For Ernani, Pier’Alli’s gorgeous designs put the ladies in satins of metallic red and gold, while the men wear form-fitting tunics of coordinating leather. Beautiful to look at, they also inhibit easy movement, as well as expressing much more of the creator’s taste and imagination than anything about the drama or the characters.

Not helping matters is a cast of strong voices but little stage personality. In the heroic tenor lead, Marco Berti manages the notes with an able but colorless instrument. If he sang with greater individuality, perhaps your reviewer wouldn’t mind so much his bland appearance and stiff stage deportment. Susan Neves shows a little more life as the love interest, Elvira, but why she inspires such mad lust from every man who sees her remains a riddle. Her singing is unsubtle but when she pours out the volume, she makes some impressive sounds. Carlo Guelfi and Giacomo Prestia, as the dark-voiced “bad guys,” Don Carlo and Silva respectively, growl and bluster appropriately. Pier-Alli really needed to spend a little less time with the needle and thread and more getting some inspired movement on stage. The elemental passions of this early Verdi work are done no favors here. Conductor Antonello Allemandi has the right ideas, however, in the pit with the Parma forces.

Capuleti_Dynamic.pngFor the Bellini, director/designer Denis Knef decided to update the tale of the star-crossed lovers to some vaguely early 20-th century setting. The unchanging backdrop of worn stone edifices suggests a plaza in Verona. The men wear caps and fedoras, with dark suits, and some carry rifles. The aim simply seems to be to put a fresh spin on the timeless tale (albeit one told with some key differences from Shakespeare’s version). In the end, the updating is harmless but meaningless. Bellini’s music never quite reaches the heights of his masterpieces, with only the last scene really touching deeper emotional levels. Nonetheless, the two leads, including a mezzo in the pants-role of Romeo, get many opportunities to shine, and both Patrizia Ciofi (Juliet) and Clara Polito (Romeo) make the most of them. As the tenor bad guy Tebaldo, Danilo Formaggio impresses with a handsome, sizeable mid-range and able top. It’s unfortunate to note that if he were better looking, he might have a lot more opportunity to expand his career. Luciano Acocella and the Orchestra Internazioale d’Italia support the singers admirably.

Perhaps if director/designers had been switched, we could have had a rougher, more scintillating Ernani and a lusher, more entrancing I Capuletti e I Montecchi. What we have instead is decent but not all that exciting.

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=G. Verdi: Ernani

product=yes producttitle=G. Verdi: Ernani productby=Marco Berti, Susan Neves, Giacomo Prestia, Carlo Guelfi. Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Regio di Parma. Antonello Allemandi: conductor. Pier’Alli: director. productid=Dynamic 33496 [DVD] price=$35.49 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 1:12 PM

Andrew Lloyd Webber — A Classical Tribute

Adding injury to that insult, Decca now releases a compilation of “classical artists’” versions of product from that non-operatic composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Well, José Carreras, Kiri Te Kanawa, Renée Fleming and Bryn Terfel (the latter two as duet partners) can rightfully be called classical artists. So can the composer’s cellist brother, who gets the lead billing: “featuring Julian Lloyd Webber.” However, Richard Clayderman, Katharine Jenkins and Leslie Garrett are crossover artists to begin with, and your reviewer has no idea who “Sissel” is, and exposure to her voice doesn’t prompt a desire to know more.

Eight of the tracks feature Julian Lloyd Webber, and despite the cellist’s ingratiating tone and good taste, he doesn’t do his composer brother any favors. Banal as the lyrics tend to be throughout the sung selections, without the words, the formula-bound triteness of Lloyd Webber’s tunes makes itself glaringly obvious. Evita’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” a tune built on repeated notes and sequences, needs some variation to retain interest, but the arrangement here plays it straight through almost 5 interminable minutes. A sweet and simple number from the early Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, “Close Every Door,” sadly reveals Andrew Lloyd Webber’s early promise, before he went for the over-blown drama of Phantom and Sunset Boulevard. So why is only one song included from Jesus Christ Superstar, surely Lloyd Webber’s best work? At least Julian Lloyd Webber plays “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with tenderness. The disc’s final tracks, from later shows such as Starlight Express and Aspects of Love, run together, with uninspired tunes and cheesy arrangements. The drums throughout the recording in particular are a sorry affair.

First-class voices only show up the weakness of the material. Terfel and Fleming sound great, but a song such as “All the Love I Have” is the musical equivalent of two great actors reciting a nursery rhyme. And the chief pleasure of hearing Carreras sing “Memory” comes from anticipating the next oddly pronounced phrase to pour out of the Spanish tenor’s golden throat.

Listed as a soprano, Katherine Jenkins sounds more like a mezzo, and at any rate, she is all wrong for “The Music of the Night,” having not the least sense of mystery or sensuality about her. And next to Richard Clayderman, Liberace was Horowitz.

Certainly ALW has his fans, although it has been quite a few years since he has produced any successful new work. So for those who like this sort of thing…here it is.

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=Andrew Lloyd Webber - The Classical Tribute

product=yes producttitle=Andrew Lloyd Webber - The Classical Tribute productby=Various performers productid=Decca 478 0190 0 [CD] price=$17.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 12:57 PM

PUCCINI: Tosca — Bruxelles 1958

Music composed by Giacomo Puccini. Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou.

First performance: 14 January 1900 at Teatro Costanzi, Rome

Principal Roles:
Floria Tosca, a famous singer Soprano
Mario Cavaradossi, painter Tenor
Il Barone Scarpia, Chief of Police Baritone
Cesar Angelotti, a political prisoner Bass
Il Sagrestano (the sacristan) Baritone
Spoletta, a police agent Tenor
Sciarrone, a gendarme Bass
Un Carceriere (a jailer) Bass
Un Pastore (a shepherd) Boy soprano

Time and Place: June 1800, Rome


Act One

Setting: Inside the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, Rome.

Angelotti, a political prisoner, enters furtively, having just escaped from the Castel Sant'Angelo through the help of his sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, who has left him some clothes in the church and the key to the Attavanti Chapel, where he can hide and disguise himself. When Angelotti is hidden, the painter Mario Cavaradossi comes in to resume work on a Maria Maddalena. The sacristan points out a resemblance between the Maria Maddalena and a strange lady who has been coming to the church frequently of late (the Marchesa). Mario contemplates the harmony of the stranger's beauty with that of his beloved, Tosca. Angelotti reappears and recognizes his old friend, Mario. Mario promises to help, but they are interrupted by the appearance of Tosca. Angelotti hides, which leads Tosca to become jealously suspicious. Mario allays her suspicions they agree to meet that evening. After Tosca leaves, Angelotti reemerges and Mario takes him to his villa outside the city.

The sacristan returns to announce the defeat of Napoleon but finds Mario has left. Choristers and acolytes prepare the Te Deum to celebrate the victory of the royalists; however, they are silenced when Scarpia enters. He has tracked Angelotti to the church and Mario's lunch basket is found in the chapel. Mario now becomes the target of his suspicions. Using the Marchesa's fan to arouse Tosca's jealousy, she flees the church and is followed by Scarpia's men. Scarpia relishes the thought of having Mario executed and possessing Tosca.

Act Two

Setting: Scarpia's apartments in the Palazzo Farnese.

As the Queen of Naples celebrates the victory in another part of the building, Spoletta arrives to report that Angelotti could not be found at Mario's villa. Mario has been brought in for questioning, but he stands silent. Tosca arrives. Mario urges her not to say anything. She nevertheless reveals Angelotti's whereabouts as Mario is being tortured. Mario rebukes her; however, he is overjoyed when Sciarrone arrives to inform Scarpia that Napoleon has won the battle at Marengo. Scarpia orders Mario to be executed at dawn. Tosca pleas for mercy. Spoletta returns with news that Angelotti has killed himself, rather than be captured. Scarpia offers to hold a mock execution of Mario in exchange for Tosca's love. She agrees. As he writes out the safe-conduct, Tosca grabs a knife on the table. When Scarpia approaches to claim his prize, she stabs him.

Act Three

Setting: Dawn atop the Castel Sant'Angelo.

While a shepherd sings in the distance, Mario is brought up to his place of execution. Alone he contemplates Tosca and his life. Tosca arrives withnews of the mock execution. She admits that she has killed Scarpia. The execution is ordered. Mario falls. Tosca approaches and urges him to rise only to find that he is dead. Spoletta then rushes in to arrest her for the murder of Scarpia. Tosca jumps from the parapet to her death.

Click here for the complete libretto.

Right click here to save playlist (xspf) of this performance in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). This playlist can be played by VLC.

image= image_description=Tosca by Rafal Olbinski audio=yes first_audio_name=Giacomo Puccini: Tosca
WinAMP, VLC or iTunes [MP3 format] first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Tosca product_by=Angelotti (Nicola Zaccaria), Carceriere (Franco Piva), Mario Cavaradossi (Giuseppe di Stefano), Pastore (Vittorio Negri), Sagrestano (Carlo Badioli), Scarpia (Ettore Bastianini), Sciarrone (Giuseppe Morresi), Spoletta (Rinaldo Pelizzoni), Tosca (Renata Tebaldi). Orchester des Teatro alla Scala. Chor des Teatro alla Scala. Gianandrea Gavazzeni (conductor).

Live performance: 20 June 1958, Bruxelles.
Posted by Gary at 12:51 PM

November 7, 2008

The Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Each of the four principals in this production demonstrates a strong sense of character portrayal and interpersonal emotional involvement in both singing and acting. The talents of this cast are essential to the success of the music and drama, since the solo and duet pieces are interwoven by Bizet to highlight individuals interacting with each other or with the chorus throughout the opera. The work is set in ancient Ceylon with Lyric Opera’s staging showing a mixture of images from Eastern religions. The virgin priestess Leïla, who pays a ceremonial visit of several days to the region of the pearl fishers, is sung by soprano Nicole Cabell. The long-standing friendship of two members of this community will be tested again during the course of the action. As the friends with a variable past, marked by loyalty as well as jealousy, Nadir and Zurga are sung, respectively, by tenor Eric Cutler and baritone Nathan Gunn. Finally, the spiritual leader of this society, identified as the high priest of Brahma, is sung by the bass baritone Christian Van Horn. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is conducted by John Mauceri.

PearlFishers_Chicago05.pngZurga (baritone Nathan Gunn) is furious to discover the priestess Leïla (soprano Nicole Cabell) violating her sacred vows with his friend Nadir (tenor Eric Cutler). Act II, The Pearl Fishers. [Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago]

From the start of the first act, the tensions that will mark a constant shift between peaceful friendship and rivalry in love are established already in the opening music and staging. A scrim covering the stage during the overture suggests a placid tropical setting whereas the initial music, as emphasized skillfully under Mauceri’s direction, contains a multi-layered projection of forthcoming oppositions. As the assembled fishers are reminded by Zurga, they are obligated to choose a new leader. Nathan Gunn, in the role of Zurga, urges the reveling dancers with his supple and convincing vocal lines, just as he accepts their decision to make him their king with a lyrical expression of dignity. Immediately after this choice is settled, the figure of Nadir reappears following a long absence from the fishermen in search of adventure “des savanes et des forêts” (“in savannas and forests”). The role of Nadir is ideally suited to the musical sensibilities of Eric Cutler. From the first notes of his entrance, Cutler’s voice soared in Nadir’s emotional scene of recognition: the challenging upper range of the part was sung consistently on pitch and without a hint of strain. More importantly, the voice communicated at once an exciting narrative of a wandering and curious spirit. Once Nadir is welcomed back into the society of pearl fishers, he finds himself alone with his former friend. As they reminisce on the priestess whom they had both seen years before in a temple at Candi, the emotions of rival attraction vs. renunciation for the sake of friendship are poured into the justly famous duet for tenor and baritone. In both declamation and poetic singing the voices of Cutler and Gunn melded yet remained distinct in exquisite lyrical effect. As Cutler pronounced “Voyez” (“Look”), one sensed that he truly could see the priestess still in his mind’s eye. Gunn’s evocation “O vision, o rêve” (“Oh vision, oh dream”) was equally effective as memory through song. After concluding the duet with the mutual assurance of sacred friendship, the announcement of a vessel landing at shore introduces the remaining two principal figures. In a ceremonial procession the unnamed virgin, whose identity must be concealed by a veil, is led into the community under the protection of Nourabad the high priest. Her duties and the promise she must swear are detailed by Zurga as newly chosen leader. Here the impressive effect of Gunn’s seamless lyrical line was paired with the rapt attention of the assembled chorus of fishers. Leïla the veiled priestess recognizes Nadir; by the same token, Nadir is reminded of his past love, when he hears now the voice of the veiled woman assenting to the conditions of chaste anonymity. The priestess is led into the temple by Nourabad, the community disperses, and Zurga leaves his friend to conclude the day in solitary reflection. The second most familiar number of the opera occurs at this point in the score. Nadir has been greatly moved by the reminder of a voice so similar to that of his beloved Leïla. He recalls the vision of the woman from the past in his “Je crois entendre encore” (“I believe I still hear”), an aria in which Cutler demonstrates not only scrupulous legato and attention to text but also high notes imbued with feeling and sung with a remarkable piano effect. His intonation of the line “O souvenir charmante” (“Oh charming souvenir”) remains in one’s memory long afterward. As Nadir falls asleep, Nourabad returns with the priestess and gives instruction for her continued prayers on an exposed rock. In the concluding scene of the first act, Leïla begins her prayer to the god, “O Dieu Brahma,” and continues, urged on by the alternating voice of the chorus, with her lines “Esprits de l’air” (“Spirits of the air”) and “Dans le ciel sans voile” (“In the cloudless sky”). In the role of the priestess Nicole Cabell sings with beauty of tone and flexibility, her range secure in all the scales and coloratura required at this point of the score. One senses her creation of a character with voice, since she remains stationary at first during her prayer. As Nadir awakens and hears again the once familiar voice, he moves toward the base of the rock. Leïla reveals her identity by lifting momentarily the veil: the mutual recognition — and Nadir’s fervent request — prompts Leïla to continue her song. Here Cabell’s performance excels in varying and decorating the repeated lines, her effortless coloratura including several skillfully executed trills. Before the final chords of the orchestra in the act the listener senses, in this performance, that both characters have been able to use their voices to sing of and to communicate their feelings for the other, yet they must still maintain distance because of oaths sworn by each to Zurga.

PearlFishers_Chicago07.pngThe high priest Nourabad (bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, left) prepares for the execution of Nadir (Eric Cutler) and Leïla (Nicole Cabell) in Act III of The Pearl Fishers. [Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago]

In the second, shorter act of The Pearl Fishers the anticipation and tension established already from the first act develops into both reunion and crisis for the lovers. The priest Nourabad leads Leïla to her shelter for nightly rest. Christian Van Horn sings imposingly and is able to inject a truly credible spirit of authority into his rich and flexible bass baritone. He warns Leïla to remain faithful to her vow and to eschew the temptation of earthly love. When she is alone, Leïla senses that Nadir must be in the immediate area, and she begins her cavatina “Comme autrefois” (“As in the past”). In this piece Cabell exhibits ravishing lyrical control as she combines memories of the past with hints of an imminent reunion. Her song is answered from outside the temple by Nadir so that music serves fittingly as their reintroduction to physical contact. Once they embrace, their duet is a confession of love and loyalty as well as a realization of the conflicts that will follow on their renewed bond. Both Cabell and Cutler give full expression to the complexity of emotion and commitment awaiting them. As a storm begins at the shore, Nourabad enters and sees that a man has defiled the temple by his presence. He sends for guards who capture the fleeing Nadir. Upon Leïla’s surrender in the temple, the fishers return and demand that both lovers be killed. This final scene introduces the dramatic conflicts of the following act once Zurga enters and attempts to mediate. He counsels leniency, which the crowd is prepared to accept until the identity of the priestess is revealed. Zurga’s mood shifts rapidly to rage as he sees that Nadir and Leïla have broken their separate oaths sworn to him.

The final act of the opera is neatly divided into two scenes. At the opening Zurga remains alone in his tent, where he is torn by guilt. Now that his fury has subsided, he regrets that Nadir, his cherished friend, must die at sunrise. In this scene Nathan Gunn sings the aria “Nadir, ami de mon jeune âge” (“Nadir, friend of my youth”) as a dramatically wrenching showpiece. Although the aria is not as interesting musically as other parts of Bizet’s score, Gunn performs it as a telling moment for the character of Zurga. Leïla now enters the tent to ask that he pardon Nadir, yet the rage of Zurga returns when he realizes that she still loves his rival. The exchange here between Cabell and Gunn becomes one of the dramatic highlights of the performance. She leaves the text prepared to die and deposits with a guard a necklace that she has worn since her youth. Zurga recognizes the necklace as one that he had given to a child who had saved his life by hiding him years before. In the final scene Nadir is surrounded by fishers, who prepare for the execution. Leïla is brought in to join him in death, as both sing of their happiness in remaining together. When Zurga declares that fire has broken out in the camp of the fishers, the latter rush off to save their families. Zurga announces to Nadir and Leïla that he himself has started the blaze: he frees the lovers and urges them to escape, returning the generosity that he had experienced from Leïla long before. Although he will surely pay in sacrifice for this act, Zurga has redeemed his friendship.

This production of The Pearl Fishers by Lyric Opera is a revival of the original design and staging from the 1997-98 season. Both sets and costumes have been redesigned under the direction of Scott Marr. This production argues convincingly for more frequent revivals of Bizet’s early opera, with the cast and direction of these performances serving as a model for future productions as well.

Salvatore Calomino

image= image_description= product=yes product_title=Georges Bizet: The Pearl Fishers product_by=Leïla (Nicole Cabell), Zurga (Nathan Gunn), Nadir (Eric Cutler), Nourabad (Christian Van Horn). Lyric Opera of Chicago. Conductor: John Mauceri. Original Production: Nicolas Joël. Director: Herbert Kellner. product_id=Above: Nicole Cabell as Leïla and Nathan Gunn as Zurga [Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago]
Posted by Gary at 10:00 AM

Houston brushes up its Shakespeare

With it, he opened the gates through which the monumental programmatic scores of the 19th century would soon flood the musical scene. In 1862- Berlioz wrapped up his career with the opéra comique Beatrice and Benedict, a brief and understated score of such grace and delicacy that the composer saw it as one of his loveliest and most original works — indeed, “as a caprice written with the point of a needle.”

The Houston Grand Opera, founded in 1955, kicked off its 2008 season with the work, for which Berlioz extracted the libretto from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. In its first staging of any Berlioz work, the HGO made the Australian Opera production a delight, further underscoring the high quality that Anthony Freud in his second full year as its general director, insists upon with this company.

Australia apparently offers escape from the excesses of European Regieoper, for this production, the work of Elijah Moshinsky, recreated for Houston by Robin Tebbutt, is simple and straightforward and set realistically in the middle of Berlioz’ own 19th century. It is beautiful and enchanting. Michael Yeargan’s single outdoors set, rich in autumnal hues, is magically lighted by Howard Harrison, whose twilight is of a perfection that outdoes Nature herself, and the very full moon that rises through an arched entrance is astonishingly unhackneyed. It’s a fine touch that Moshinsky has the happy ending of the opera — a huge double wedding — caught by a period photographer. The curtain falls as his light flashes.

The performance heard on November 2, was as impressive vocally as it was visually. Joyce DiDonato and Norman Reinhardt sang the spunky title figures, two young people, proud and individually minded, fighting the fact that they are madly in love with each other. In DiDonato, now an international star, one experiences magnificent growth with each encounter; it is hardly surprising that she walks a path already strewn with awards. And Reinhardt, tall, handsome and virile of voice, is a perfect partner for her.

It is, however, Ireland’s Ailish Tynan who almost steals the show as Hero, the gentle and steadfast female of the story’s second couple. Tynan, celebrated both in Europe and the US as Susanna, Papagena and Zerlina, is a petite woman who sings with shimmering ease. And one wished that Berlioz had provided her partner Claudio, baritone Lian Bronner, with more to sing.

fsanchez102708_8838.pngNorman Reinhardt (Benedict) and Joyce DiDonato (Beatrice) in Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict [Photo by Felix Sanchez]

Yet a third female brought splendor to the cast: Leann Sandel-Pantaleo, who was stellar as Hero’s lady-in-waiting Ursule. Hers is a voice of such melting gentleness that it is difficult to imagine that Amneris and Siegrune are among her signature roles. The duet with which Tynan and Sandel-Pantaleo concluded Act One, was a masterpiece of refined singing.

Indeed, so overwhelming were the three sopranos in the HGO cast that one wondered whether Strauss might have taken cues from Berlioz in composing Rosenkavalier. Rarely does one hear female voices so touchingly combined. The cast further documented the excellent training offered by the HGO studio, for DiDonato, Reinhardt and Bronner are all alumni of the program.

True to the conventions of opéra comique, Berlioz included a good bit of spoken dialogue in his libretto and — concerned about its delivery — instructed singers at the Baden-Baden premiere to “speak like human beings,” and that is exactly what this cast did, allowing speech and music to flow easily into each other.

fsanchez102708_9123.pngAilish Tynan (Hero) in HGO's production of Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict [Photo by Felix Sanchez]

An unfortunate exception was veteran actor Donald Maxwell as alcoholic choirmaster Somarone, a role that is largely ad-libbed. Although a great hit with the audience, Maxwell sadly overplayed his hand, speaking further in an overblown British that conflicted sadly with the American English of the remaining cast.

Young German conductor Michael Hofstetter, now maestro of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, showed his understanding of the unique and transparent reserve of this score, while bringing to the surface the melancholy undercurrent of the work. Richard Bado did his usually exemplary work with the HGO chorus.

The HGO performed the musical portion of Beatrice and Benedict in Geoffrey Dunn’s English translation, while Moshinsky, rather than translating Berlioz’ spoken text into English, went directly to Shakespeare for much of that dialogue. It was a fine touch that elevated the stature of the work. Despite its many merits Beatrice and Benedict is an uneven score, which makes the well-rounded coherence of the HGO staging even more admirable.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Joyce DiDonato as Beatrice in HGO's production of Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict [Photo by Andrew Cloud] product=yes product_title=Hector Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict product_by=Joyce DiDonato (Beatrice), Norman Reinhardt (Benedict), Ailish Tynan (Hero), Leann Sandel-Pantaleo (Ursule), Ryan McKinny (Don Pedro), Liam Bonner (Claudio), Donald Maxwell (Somarone), Charles Krohn (Leonato). Houston Grand Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Michael Hofstetter: Conductor. Elijah Moshinsky: Original Production. Robin Tebbutt: Director. product_id=Above: Joyce DiDonato as Beatrice in HGO's production of Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict [Photo by Andrew Cloud]
Posted by Gary at 9:17 AM

November 6, 2008

A Truly Wacky Barber

By Raymond Stults [Moscow Times, 7 November 2008]

”It’s going to be wacky,” remarked director Elijah Moshinsky just before the curtain rose last Thursday at Novaya Opera on a preview performance of his new staging of Gioacchino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” And wonderfully wacky it was indeed from beginning to end.

Posted by Gary at 6:19 PM

It's time for the arts to get creative -- about money

Robert Gauthier [Los Angeles Times, 7 November 2008]

It’s been a momentous week. Monday morning at the Music Center, Los Angeles Opera announced a monumental citywide “Ring” festival. As many as 50 organizations around town have expressed willingness to help the company promote its first attempt at Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” cycle in 2010.

Posted by Gary at 6:10 PM

The Rape of Lucretia at Kings Place

Hilary Finch [Times Online, 6 November 2008]

The days of music-stand histrionics are fading fast. Opera in concert performance is now becoming directors’ opera — in the best sense of the word. Awkward semi-stagings are out too: singers, freed from scores, props and costumes, are meeting the music head-on.

Posted by Gary at 4:25 PM

Bernstein in Beijing: China's Classical Music Explosion

By Jeffrey Kluger [Time, 6 November 2008]

Long Yu has come a long way since the day in 1976 when he accidentally killed a duck. The duck was going to die anyway, but not until it had been properly fattened up in the breeding factory where Long, then 12, was required to work in the waning days of China’s Cultural Revolution. The ducks were force-fed through a tube operated by a foot-pedal — a single pump per meal. One day Long got careless and accidentally pumped twice. End of duck.

Posted by Gary at 4:13 PM

Les Indes galantes, Barbican, London

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 5 November 2008]

The period instrument groups are on the brink of middle age. Like many of its rivals, Les Arts Florissants was conceived in the heady days at the end of the 1970s when the period performance movement was young and ambitious and seemed ready to conquer the world, as it began to venture out of its early music enclave.

Posted by Gary at 3:22 PM

Canadian Opera Company Trumpets its Success

Robert Everett-Green [Globe & Mail, 5 November 2008]

There were a lot of double-digit numbers mentioned at the Canadian Opera Company’s annual general meeting yesterday, and all of them were good. The Toronto company had a bumper year in 2007-08, as donations surged by 26 per cent and box-office revenue jumped by 16 per cent to a record high of $12.3-million.

Posted by Gary at 3:15 PM

November 4, 2008

Boris Godunov at San Francisco Opera

As recently as 1992 SFO still made use of an “improved” version of this magnificent opera — Mussorgsky’s own so-called definitive version (1872), improved in that it provided a role for a diva, added a resplendent ball scene and included the pretender Dimitri’s march to Moscow.

The fate of Mussorgsky’s Boris gets even more complicated because after his death his friend Rimsky-Korsakov did him the favor of improving his vocal lines and his orchestration, and then 50 years later Soviet composer Shostakovitch improved the Rimsky-Korsakov version. San Franciscans know all three musical versions, in the early years it was the Rimsky-Korsakov, but as one of the world’s progressive companies in the 1970’s San Francisco Opera was among the first to recover Mussorgsky’s original orchestration. The more recent 1992 staging offered, gratefully, the fine Shostakovitch version.

PimenGrigory.pngVitalij Kowaljow (Pimen) and Vsevolod Grivnov (Grigory)
This twelfth San Francisco Opera staging of Boris Godunov is the first time that San Franciscans will see Mussorgsky’s original seven scenes. The profound concentration of the audience (10/30/08) made it apparent that there was not one note too many, nor one note too few. It was a performance of perfection, our hearts and minds focused, with Mussorgsky, on the power, the fear and the anguish of Pushkin’s guilty czar Boris.

Never mind that modern historians do not find Boris guilty of murdering the czarevitch Dimitri, Pushkin and Mussorgsky did, thus Boris lives in history as a magnanimous ruler tormented by the crime that made him the ruler of Russia. Boris is a man who is kind to his children and his people, and brutally cruel to his enemies. Obsessed by the terrible guilt of murder, he understands that his crime will inflict unspeakable suffering onto the Russian people.

The program booklet attributes this production to Norwegian theater director Stein Winge, who staged Boris at the Grand Théâtre de Genève in 1993. These fifteen years later any reference to his original staging is surely coincidental, though the rudiments of his conception still exist in the huge abstract wooden structure, a massive skateboard ramp that is the stage, and the magnificent costumes that seem to have jumped out of the museum paintings that commemorate this turbulent period of Russian history. Though the production hardly reflects current operatic thought, it is timeless in concept, the powerful image of the land and state made only of wood and therefore as vulnerable to easy destruction as are Russia’s forests and her wooden churches, palaces and villages.

Mussorgsky’s opera is really only a few scenes from Pushkin’s huge play of the same name. These scenes are intoned over music, a sort of opéra dialoguée though Mussorgsky’s Boris adds the historical social moment with huge, beseeching choruses, the wily songs of countryside peasantry, and the landscape itself echoing in the tonal magnificence of church bells. Its biggest moments are however its most intimate moments, the two monologues that tell of the czarevitch’s murder, Boris’ great soliloquy and then his death, and the moral authority of Boris’ nemesis — an idiot — in a simple song.

Simpleton.pngAndrew Bidlack (The simpleton)
Nothing is ever perfect, least of all this San Francisco Opera production, but the word perfect lingers because of the many fine performances turned in. Russian conductor Vassily Sinaisky brought Mussorgsky’s score radiantly alive in the huge chorus scenes, and brilliantly detailed the musical colors of the monologues, eloquently stating the ironies of Mussorgsky’s leitmotifs.

Mo. Sinaisky was particularly effective with his Russian speaking colleagues. The heroic tenor of Vsevolod Grivnov rang with the opportunism of Dimitri, the warm, well produced voice of bass Vitalij Kowaljow gave strong presence to the old monk/chronicler Pimen, bass Vladimir Ognovenko made the wily, corrupt Varlaam into an infatuating caricature of a mendicant monk. Tenor John Uhlenhopp gave a beautifully sung and brilliantly graphic characterization of the treacherous prince, Shuisky, and mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook offered an absolutely believable raunchy Innkeeper.

Perhaps bass Samuel Ramey was once perfection itself as the czar Boris Godunov. At this point in what has been a distinguished career only the shell of a voice remains. He held himself at a strange distance from Boris, seeming only occasionally to make contact with either the vocal line or the Boris character. By contrast his son Fyodor was brought alive by twelve year old Jack Gorlin, in an extraordinary performance that was vocally, musically and histrionically that of a finished artist.

The cast is large, thus San Francisco Opera made a lot of use of its artists-in-training program, the Adler Fellows. Soprano Ji Young Yang was perfect as the Czar’s daughter Xenia, and tenor Matthew O’Neill was masterful as the rogue monk Missail. The commanding stature of whip cracking baritone Kenneth Kellogg was effective. Soprano Daveda Karanas functioned as the Nurse to the Czar’s children. The casting of a young artist-in-training as the Simpleton was unfortunate. Tenor Andrew Bidlack could not contribute the complex stature needed for this role, nor does he possess the purity of voice color appropriate to the simplicity and emotional import of this daunting personage.

PrinceEntrance.jpgJohn Uhlenhopp (Prince Shuisky)

The current stage director for this widely traveled production was Julia Pevzner who moved people on and off stage as needed, but seemed to have left the huge cast otherwise helpless. The brilliant, now dated set for this 1993 Geneva production was designed by Sweden’s Goran Wassberg, the sumptuous costumes the work of Norwegian designer Kari Gravklev.

Michael Milenski

image= image_description=Samuel Ramey (Boris Godunov) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product=yes producttitle= productby= product_id=Above: Samuel Ramey (Boris Godunov)

All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by Gary at 12:59 PM

Rusalka and La tragedie de Carmen by English Touring Opera

So Carmen and Rusalka seemed an ambitious prospect for this year's Autumn slot, without any apparent increase in resources.

One of the two, Rusalka – Dvorak's retelling of the Undine fable dealing with loss of innocence and the impossibility of survival in an alien world – reached the stage almost intact. The original orchestration is of Wagnerian proportions, and inevitably a 13-piece reduction (created for the Iford Festival by Ian Farrington) cannot create a sound-world of anything approaching the same depth, but there were few actual cuts, and the small orchestra under conductor Alex Ingram did its best to sound sumptuous and shimmering.

Director James Conway has chosen to present the opposite worlds of the water-dwellers and the humans through the medium of a real-life cultural divide – the American colonisation of Haiti in 1915. The casting reflected this, with black singers as the Water Sprite and nymphs, and white singers in the human roles. The only exception was the white Jezibaba, ostensibly a survivor of Haiti's indigenous Taino race – though I confess I wondered if this angle might have been dreamt up because ETO couldn't think of a black mezzo to cast in the role.

The general concept, though, was ingenious, successfully conveying a culture of unwitting ignorance and an irreconcilable chasm of difference between peoples, each 'side' unconsciously incapable of viewing the other as equal.

In the title role, Donna Bateman lacked legato occasionally, but her performance was full-voiced, passionate and involving, a very physical portrayal of a would-be free spirit who feels trapped and unfulfilled in her own world, but who finds that every step she takes only leads her to a new prison. As the Prince, Richard Roberts had ardour, good looks and a lyrical, evenly-produced tenor, while Fiona Kimm's Jezibaba was a tour de force.

Keel Watson was a characterful Water Sprite, his full bass caressing the melancholy falling phrases. The trio of nymphs – Angela Caesar, Abigail Kelly and Alison Crookendale – were mellifluously pleasing to the ear when singing together, with Caesar's light and attractive soprano a particular solo highlight. The Gamekeeper (Maciek O'Shea) and Turnspit (Jessica Summers) were lively and engaging in their second-act cameo, while as the Foreign Princess, Camilla Roberts was vocally powerful, full of hauteur and chillingly unpleasant in her snide insults towards Rusalka.

rusalka_092.pngMaciek O'Shea (Gamekeeper), Jessica Summers (Turnspit)

The staging and lighting were very simple, with minimal set and a backdrop consisting of a giant corrugated moon.

carmen_115.pngLeah Marian Jones (Carmen)
Far more adventurous, though maintaining the theme of cultural contrast, was La tragedie de Carmen, Peter Brook's short theatrical piece based on, but not a direct equivalent of, Bizet's opera. In an effort to be faithful to the spirit of Mérimée, it presents the bare bones of the story in a single act, a nightmarish sequence of flashbacks haunting the demented Don José, who at the start has Carmen's blood fresh on his hands.

Brook's version was created in 1981 and is only licensed for performance in French, which – although ETO prefers to perform as much as possible in English – director Andrew Steggall capitalises upon, staging it as a film noir. It all feels quintessentially French: the Carmen, Leah-Marian Jones, with her fair colouring and feline eyes and demeanour, comes across as a sultry French chanteuse a la Marlene Dietrich rather than a gypsy.

Marius Constant's score, freely adapted from Bizet's, makes imaginative use of orchestral colouring, using percussion to particularly evocative effect. All Carmen's own arias survive, but she sings them as introspective solo concert-pieces not addressed to anybody in particular, and Nicholas Garrett is made to croon the Toreador Song in a similarly intimate and non-operatic style. The straight 'operatic' numbers bloom like moments of unexpected beauty, and are mostly reserved for Don José (David Curry) and Micaela (Sinéad Campbell-Wallace), evoking the world of innocence from which they originate.

La tragédie is a juxtaposition of this musical beauty with raw, violent horror; in little over an hour, Don José is dragged further and further into obsession and madness, bludgeoning Carmen's gypsy husband with a bull's skull in a breathtaking piece of shadow-play. Not even Escamillo gets out of the nightmare in one piece.

carmen_160.pngMaciek O'Shea (ZUNIGA), David Curry (Don Jose)

It is the kind of piece which would normally lend itself to performance in an off-West-End studio by a cast of theatrically-trained singing actors, and it was a luxury to hear it performed by opera singers. Moreover, it was an extremely powerful drama.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image= image_description=Donna Bateman (Rusalka) [Photo by Robert Workman] product=yes product_title=Rusalka and La tragedie de Carmen by English Touring Opera product_by= product_id=Above: Donna Bateman (Rusalka)

All photos by Robert Workman courtesy of English Touring Opera
Posted by Gary at 11:58 AM

Elektra at Royal Opera House

Elektra is a kind of Holy Stück”, he adds. Sir Thomas Beecham conducted it at the Royal Opera House in 1910, a year after it was written, so it carries a venerable performance tradition. But every production is different. “It’s an opera with a fantastic inner logic to it, like Wozzeck, in terms of orchestral and psychological insight…. a kind of psychogram, drawing a picture of what’s happening in the minds of the characters. Citing the sequence where Klytemnestra recounts her traumatic dream, Edwards notes how close Strauss comes to atonality. The music wavers between tones because Klytemnestra can’t find her place emotionally. Strauss was writing well before Schoenberg, and conceptually this is very advanced. It’s as if the composer was on a “cliff edge, looking over into an abyss and pulling back.” Although there are elements of later Strauss in this music, the composer is on dangerous new ground.

Elektra also stands on the precipice in historic terms. This was the Vienna of Freud and artistic innovation. “Hofmannsthal’s libretto isn’t Wagnerian, it’s highly colloquial language, it was daring, yet he didn’t undertake lightly the task of reinterpreting the ancient tragedy in modern, psychological terms”. This was a pivot point in European history, nations tottering on the edge of the First World War, and the end of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires. Hence costumes which evoke Kaiser and Tsar, and sets which juxtapose ancient Greek ruins and early Bauhaus architecture. “The whole weight of history is pressing down”. It’s significant that the production was first conceived on the brink of the invasion of Iraq. If anything, the last five years have sharpened the focus. “We cannot ignore the past”. Klytemnestra wants to forget Agamemnon’s murder, but the truth catches up on her. The characters are locked in a cycle of retribution and violence. “Revenge, revenge, revenge” says Edwards, “it’s been going on since the beginning of mankind”.

“Ich trage die Last des Glückes”, Elektra carries the burden of the past, until she herself dies. Her final dance is not a dance of triumph – she doesn’t die in other versions of the legend, but in Hofmannsthal’s version, she is killed, just like those who killed her father, because she wanted vengeance too much. “That’s what that final C Major chord means”, says Edwards. As Mark Elder pointed out, it comes suddenly, in contrast to the minor keys that lead up to this point. “Strauss is turning a blinding light upon us” says Edwards, “This is not celebration, it’s interrogation : Is this what we really want ?” Elektra has been rehearsing her victory for a long time, but when it becomes reality, it finishes her off.

In this production, Edwards wants the music to come through clearly. “This won’t be a total Schlacht of sound, a generalised bloodbath of noise where you can’t really hear the words. The louder the orchestra, the more the singers have to force their voices and that lessens what they can really do”. Of course Elektra can be loud, but this can obscure the deeper levels of meaning. No diva “bathing in vast amounts of decibels”, then ? “Mark Elder knew absolutely that he wanted to avoid the caricature of Elektra as a mad harpie. A lot of her music is soft, amazingly tender. The dynamic between Elektra and Chrysothemis is fundamental. Elektra, for all her righteousness, is deeply damaged : everything that weiblich, human and fertile about her, she’s had to repress, yet she doesn’t hold it against her sister who stands for all she can never have”.

That’s why Edwards is so thrilled about Susan Bullock who will be this Elektra. “She understood, instinctively, she has an astonishing theatrical imagination. She is the greatest English singing actress in this role in the world”. Many who have heard Bullock will agree. Although she has created the part more than 50 times, she comes to the production with an open mind, eager to develop. Her experience counts. “Because of the physical requirements of opera, singers, like dancers, absolutely have to get the character ‘into their bodies’ and grow with it flexibly”.

Bullock’s approach to Elektra determines this characterization of Chrysothermis. “Nagellack”, a conductor once told Edwards, was the essence of the part, as if she had to be some hardened Jean Harlow vamp. “I don’t think Chrysothemis ever puts nail polish on” he says, however. She’s the one who believes in babies and intimacy. “She’s as strong as Elektra but more rational. Elektra has this hallucinogenic monologue where she’s fantasizing about revenge, and Chrysothemis comes in quietly and warns her that the immediate problem pressing on her is that their mother wants to lock her up. Anne Schwanewilms will be singing the role.

Chrysothemis is pure, but Elektra has been corrupted, along the way, and not simply by her father’s death. Has Aegisth abused her ? His hold over Klytemnestra is sexual, but this production shows that her body has collapsed, while he is still “this priapic power-crazed individual who satisfies himself wherever he can”. That’s why the maids are pregnant ! Aegisth doesn’t think beyond the moment any more than Klytemnestra can think of the past. There’s an unhealthy power struggle between Aegisth and Elektra. “We’re playing this as a kind of sex game, as she can be quite dominating as she has some kind of power over him. Maybe she can tell her mother he’s fiddling with her ? there’s mileage in that. There’s no way out for Elektra, no sexual release or outflow. It comes from a poisoned place because she’s had to stifle all the natural warmth and sexual maturity she should have been able to grow into.” We can imagine Freudian things now that Hofmannsthal would not have dared express a hundred years ago. Here, even Orestes isn’t “some proto Wotan hero, but traumatised”.

“If only I could erase the word ‘revival’ from the operatic lexicon !” says Edwards. “The word Weideraufnahme, a “new take”, is more appropriate. Five years have passed, and if anything, the interpretation takes on extra significance now that all that’s safe and certain seems to be crumbling around us. Edwards credits his cast, who have melded well. The family in the plot may be dysfunctional, but the singers work together like a community. “It’s much more ensemble. Everyone’s on stage at the end, the whole piece is cyclical. Toscaninni said there is no such thing as small parts, only small artists and there are no small artists in this production. Everyone is going on a journey, all their roles figure”.

This Elektra is on at the Royal Opera House, London on November 8th, 12th, 15th, 18th, 21st, 24th. Click here for details.

Charles Edwards has extensive directing and design experience throughout Europe. In the United States he has designed productions for Dallas, Houston and Chicago.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Charles Edwards

product=yes producttitle=Elektra at Royal Opera House — An interview with Charles Edwards productby=Above: Charles Edwards

Posted by Gary at 11:14 AM

November 2, 2008

In a Man’s World, Poison Is Her Best Revenge

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 3 November 2008]

WASHINGTON — This incident has entered operatic lore: Ten years ago the soprano Renée Fleming was lustily booed by an audience at La Scala in Milan for her performance in the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia.” It’s a juicy story. But it’s not quite true.

Posted by Gary at 8:00 PM

Opera Cleveland's 'Hansel and Gretel' at State Theatre was performance of charm, grace, musical depth

Donald Rosenberg [Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2 November 2008]
So where were all the opera goers Friday? Out trick-or-treating with their children? Crying over their 401(k)s?
Posted by Gary at 4:34 PM

Tale of a fallen woman stands out for style

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 2 November 2008]

Life and death, joy and pain, love and duty: Verdi’s amoral tale of a “fallen woman” strikes to the very heart of human existence, touching its extremes, reconciling its contradictions. But too often it is drowned by musical routine and the very superficiality that masks Violetta’s soul.

Posted by Gary at 4:31 PM

Getting a Handel on Baroque music

By ROBERT TRUSSELL [Kansas City Star, 1 November 2008]

Lyric Opera director Ward Holmquist thought it was time to expose his audience to the pleasures of Baroque opera.

That’s even though the most popular operas remain those written by Romantic composers in the 19th century. Think “La Boheme” by Puccini or Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Think soaring melodies, elegant harmonies and narrative drive.

Posted by Gary at 11:27 AM

Works of Richard Strauss

The following are performances of major works by Richard Strauss. Click the title to access.

  1. Der Rosenkavalier — Hamburg 1992
  2. Der Rosenkavalier — Wien 1987
  3. Die Frau ohne Schatten — Covent Garden 1976
  4. Die Frau ohne Schatten — Covent Garden 1992
  5. Die ägyptische Helena — Munich 1956
  6. Die ägyptische Helena — Salzburg 2003
  7. Arabella — Salzburg 1958
  8. Arabella — Dresden 2005
  9. Capriccio — Vienna 2008
  10. Salome — Covent Garden 2008
  11. Intermezzo — Vienna 1963
  12. Elektra — Vienna 1977
  13. Ariadne auf Naxos — Vienna 1996

For best results, use VLC or Winamp.

image= image_description=Richard Strauss

product=yes product_title=Works of Richard Strauss

Posted by Gary at 6:28 AM

Wagner Duets: Nilsson and Hotter, Polaski and Botha

Perhaps it won’t be too long before EMI decides that release belongs in their “Great Recordings of the Century” series, but for now, their Wagner duet collection under that sobriquet comes from 1957, with the legendary Hans Hotter and Birgit Nilsson. Another disc of Wagner duets out recently, from the small Oehms label, features Deborah Polaski and Johan Botha in the major scenes for Tristan und Isolde. Both discs feature an established veteran caught somewhat late, and a rising star in the repertoire - but with the genders reversed.

Hans Hotter had been singing Wotan and the Dutchman for a couple decades when Walter Legge decided to pair him with the up-and-coming Birgit Nilsson (although she was near 40 at the time of the sessions). Nillson also sings Senta’s solo number, as well as those of the Tannäuser Elisabeth, the Lohengrin Elsa, and Isolde’s “Liebestod” (on a bonus second disc). The brief booklet note by Mike Ashman depicts the EMI release as a by-product of Legge’s frustrated desire to record a complete Ring cycle. The last 40 minutes of Die Walküre’s act three present a Wotan of depleted but still potent authority, with Hotter’s bass at times shaky and short-breathed, yet still commanding respect. Nilsson is in fine voice, but the characterization of Brünnhilde would grow as her career continued. It’s intriguing to hear the great soprano hold back her power to get into the characters of Elisabeth and Elsa. However, at times, her intonation suffers a bit. The voice in full cry has more impact, and both her Senta solo scene and the duet with Hotter’s Dutchman show her off well.

The conducting of Leopold Ludwig is more serviceable than distinguished, while the Philharmonia Orchestra sounds very good. The sound has some tape hiss, easily adjusted to.

T_I_Duets.pngOehms offers a “super-audio” CD of Tristan und Isolde highlights, with very clean, crisp sound. Bertrand de Billy may not have built his reputation on Wagner, but he leads a warm, intimately scaled reading with the RSO Wien. The strongest attraction of this disc is the beautiful yet masculine performance of Johan Botha as Tristan. Here is a lover and a warrior, soaring high with total security. Botha has yet to sing the role on stage, and if he can be directed to be a livelier stage presence than he has shown himself to be in the past, he should present a formidable Tristan. Deborah Polaski, on the other hand, has sung Isolde for over two decades. On the plus side, she has developed a full-scale interpretation of a woman of barely controllable temperament, almost as fearsome in her passion as in her act one rage. On the not so plus side - the voice simply does not record well. She sounds quite a bit older than her Tristan, and the top tends to spread.

To stick to its chosen framework of “The Duet Scenes,” Oehms allows for some abrupt edits, especially at the end of the love duet. There’s no time for King Marke, either, or anything from act three. So those frustrated by the selections might want to look for another Oehms disc of Isolde’s other music, which presumably contains Polaski’s version of the Liebestod. Perhaps better yet, switch over to the Nilsson/Hotter disc for Birgit’s exalted “Mild und leise.”

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Wagner: Arias

product=yes producttitle=Wagner: Opera Arias and Duets productby=Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Leopold Ludwig, Philharmonia Orchestra productid=EMI Classics 5099950970322 [CD] price=$12.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 5:57 AM

The Tsar’s Bride by OONY

If you read the heading of this review, you already know the answer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar’s Bride – one of the most popular operas throughout Russia, but downright obscure in the West – it has never been staged in New York (to my knowledge), despite a huge Russian community who would eat it up and a dozen visits over the years from three or four of Russia’s leading opera companies wasting our time with Mlada or Macbeth or far too many Onegins.

Rimsky-Korsakov was in an Italianate mood when he composed Tsar’s Bride, with its feast of plot complications and consequent musical situations: licentious boyar Grisha Gryaznoi (heroic baritone) lusts for Marfa (coloratura soprano), though she is about to wed her truelove Lykov (romantic tenor). Grisha persuades the tsar’s sinister German alchemist, Bomelii (character tenor), to concoct a potion that will make Marfa fall for best man Grisha instead. Complication one: Grisha’s jealous mistress Lyubasha (dynamite Slavic mezzo) switches the potion with another one, intended to destroy Marfa’s good looks – never mind how Lyubasha got the sleazy alchemist to run it up for her (think: Tosca). Complication two: Just as Marfa drinks the potion on her wedding day, news arrives that the tsar, Ivan the Terrible no less (sinister offstage presence), has chosen Marfa as his bride! Too, the potion – what was in it? – turns out to be poison that drives her lyrically insane. At curtain’s fall, everyone is either miserable or dead except the tsar, who remains off stage, singing (we may imagine), “Next!” (Ivan married more wives than Henry VIII. He once proposed to Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth.)

Bride is, thus, one of those operas (like Don Carlos or Don Giovanni or L’Africaine) where no single character grabs our attention all night; we are involved with the dilemmas and desires of many, and follow them through to a general catastrophe. One reason the opera may be rare over here may be the sheer number of great voices who are required to sing beautiful arias and ensembles in the true, flavorful Russian manner. Lyubasha calls for a grand low-voiced lady, with a voice from the vaults of the earth; it has long been a signature role for Borodina, and she graciously returned to sing it with Queler a second time. Marfa’s father, Sobakin, is a Russian bass from the old church-trained tradition, like Boris or Prince Igor or Prince Gremin. Marfa herself is an all-stops-out coloratura, whose lovely final scene is one of Rimsky’s handsomest tunes. And first and last there is the devilish Grisha Gryaznoi, whose outward brashness conceals inner torment, selfishness, crime and, finally, a (very Russian) orgy of guilt. Half a dozen minor roles have major parts to sing in solos and ensembles.

The problem is that it’s hard to bring in a worthy performance (and O.O.N.Y.’s was a very worthy performance) unless you have dozens of great Russian singers at your disposal – but that doesn’t prevent anyone in the West from staging Boris Godunov or even the far less theatrically promising Khovanshchina or Prince Igor – all three of which, by the way, might never have captured the stage at all had it not been for Rimsky-Korsakov’s now discredited editing.

Happily, Eve Queler and her Opera Orchestra of New York threw caution to the winds and brought this wonderful piece back to Carnegie Hall for the first New York hearing in twenty years. Olga Borodina, new in town at that previous performance, is now a grande dame and local favorite, but she retains the plummy low notes that make Lyubasha appealing, her disastrous passions touching. Borodina is one of the rare Russian singers (her husband, Ildar Abdrazakov, is another) who has no trouble singing Italian music idiomatically, without the voiced vowels and Slavic curlicues that make so many Russian opera singers a little risible in western song, but back in her native element there seem to be depths of tragic character lurking in the rounded shadows of her singing.

Alexey Markov made an exciting impression chewing up the stage as the narcissistic Grisha. He is a fine singing actor, with a plush, endearing baritone – and it is necessary that this character make himself a lovable scamp in the great narrations of the first act or his hideous behavior for the rest of the evening will only depress you. Yeghishe Manucharyan sang ardently and deft phrasing as Marfa’s hapless true love, but John Easterlin nearly stole the tenor honors with a Bomelii at once forceful and melodramatically harsh. You did not need a libretto to know which of these men was the lover and which the villain, and Easterlin made a villain it was a delight to hiss. Christophoros Stamboglis, as Marfa’s understandably confused father, had a good time with one of those stirring, from-the-depths-of-the-Russian-earth bass arias – only the last, very lowest note eluded him. There were many excellent young singers in minor but important roles (housekeeper, sister, mother – impossible to tell them apart as the electric titles often broke down and there was no printed libretto), and such poignant bits of music-making as the lovely wedding sextet (the last happy moment before the potion is drunk and Tsar Ivan’s messenger arrives) were revels in the bosom of vocal art.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Rimsky-Korsakov by Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov

product=yes producttitle=Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tsar’s Bride [Tsarskaya nevesta]. productby=Marfa (Olga Makarina), Lyubasha (Olga Borodina), Lykov (Yeghishe Manucharyan). Bomelii (John Easterlin). Gryaznoi (Alexey Markov), Sobakin (Christophoros Stamboglis). Opera Orchestra of New York conducted by Eve Queler; performance of October 15. product_id=Above: Rimsky-Korsakov by Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov

Posted by Gary at 5:47 AM

Blond Leading the Blond: Scandinavia Times Three

My only previous experience with the Norwegian National Opera had been a number of years ago for a perfectly competent L’Italiana in Algeria (or was it La Cenerentola?).

While the exact Rossini may be forgettable, what is still vividly implanted from that visit was that the company was housed, make that “tucked away” inside a depressingly non-descript shopping arcade, poorly signed, and with an auditorium of a garden variety 60’s high school multi-function room. Lo these many intervening years, I always told myself I would wait to return until they had the long-talked about new home.

Well, the wait is over, and Godot is here. The brilliant new house is nothing short of stunning with an imposing, glacier-like facade right on the water (you can walk up two sloping roofs outside to the top of the lobby!), sporting exceedingly handsome and spacious public areas (the men’s plumbing fixtures appear like fountains framed by indirect lighting almost too pretty to soil!), and a gorgeous and rich dark-wood auditorium with excellent acoustics. It reminded me of a silhouette of a Viking ship with its coloring and curving lines.

And they have happily inhabited these auspicious surroundings with a festival quality production of Don Carlo, being shared with Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera.

The opening forest scene of Bob Crowley’s handsome design looks like a very elegant, very expensive Hallmark card, with raised white silhouettes of trees, and a central winding path nestled in perspective between snow carpets (which might have benefited from a little more tape applied to the edges). Within this lovely setting director Nicholas Hytner created detailed staging with the soloists, devising interaction and stage business that not only conveyed their youthfulness, but also the playfulness of their courtship.

That directorial inventiveness was in ample supply is witnessed by such touches at act’s end as having the courtiers laying cloaks in the snow for the (now) “queen” to cross to a waiting sedan chair to be lifted high and carried through the crowd with a heart-rending clear sight line to the devastated Carlo.

This (and subsequent scenes) was framed by a box of walls that were evenly dotted with small square holes. These openings allowed for terrific lighting effects from designer Mark Henderson, such as the tomb scene where shafts of white light spookily slashed through the copious chemical fog on stage. The ostentatious black marble tomb down left with the lone word “Carlos” engraved large on it, was tracked to move diagonally upstage and be separated by walls to create an alcove, allowing the vacated space for hero and heroine to play out their important confrontation scene.

Don_Carlo02.pngAnja Harteros as Elisabeth and René Pape as Filip II (Photo courtesy of Den Norske Opera & Ballett)

The subsequent garden scene was so playful it looked like it could have come from Crowley’s sketchbook for Elton John’s Broadway Aida. An expansive field chockful of red flowers was fronted by a dominating triangular piece of wall made up of large red, well, bricks. . .sort of. A cut out of a cross frames a dangling crucifix (did I say “playful”?) and church bell. A long continuous diagonal bench completed the setting which allowed for an especially animated “Veil Song” with ladies dancing front, behind, and on the bench thanks to the choreography of Scarlett Mackmin.

What the setting may have lacked for atmosphere for the love duet, was more than compensated by superlative blocking that was alternately impassioned, despairing and sensual. Should the duo be prone on the ground, as I have never seen before? It sure worked dramatically. And hey, maybe that is why the King never wants her to be alone! Powerful stuff.

The “other garden” scene of mistaken identities was given a great assist by layers of scrim panels of trees center and left, and a large rounded ivied wall right. For once the confusion of shadows and light worked, with Eboli ducking between scrim and full view, rendering Carlo’s gullibility of her identity believable. This rounded wall remained (sans ivy) for the auto-da-fe, with a large ornate alter-piece-as-church-facade filling the upstage.

This was the best staging of this problematic section that I have yet seen. The usual dumb show of processing sinners as the (sorry, Giuseppe) rather indifferent dirge of a march churns along, was here devised as a last-chance-before-you-fry scenario in which a priest challenges each of six convicts in turn by name to repent their heresy. Purists may chide me for enjoying the made up chatter that competes with the music, but damn if it didn’t make the proceedings come alive.

The rounded wall turned out to be a scrim panel revealing the naked sinners burning at the stake and, in a brilliant touch, the Heavenly Voice came from high above the back of auditorium. Doink! What a great solution! It should never be done any other way! (Especially if you have the silvery tones of Eli Kristin Hanssveen at your disposal.)

The home stretch was increasingly more spare with the study simple and sparsely furnished and the cell completely vacant, until we returned to the tomb. My appreciation for Mr. Hytner continued to grow as he drew motivated movement, detailed acting, and emotionally varied performances from his principals. Posa’s death scene, with the anguished Carlo cradling his cherished friend made me weep for the first time ever. The sometimes ungrateful final duet scene found Elisabetta and Carlo with ever fresh and imaginative interaction, at one point sitting together on the steps of the tomb.

Don_Carlo03.pngKeith Ikaia-Purdy as Don Carlo and Peter Mattei as Posa (Photo courtesy of Den Norske Opera & Ballett)

Of course, no one (except perhaps a handful of German Regie-Theater eccentrics) goes to Don Carlo for the scenery. And on the musical side, this performance could scarcely have been bettered. Conductor Marco Guidarini drew idiomatic, nuanced playing from the pit, and had a secure command over the pace and sweep of the masterpiece. While he could sometimes dawdle and indulge a bit, such as the bridge in “O Don Fatale,” in general the rhythmic drive was right on the money. While the great duet for Fillipo and the Inquisitor was as brisk as I have heard, what it lost in gravity it gained in evil menace.

Rene Pape made a fine Filippo and he voiced a compelling “Ella giammai m’amo,” although it must be said that he was initially a little muted, since he usually serves notice with his first utterances that he is a force to be reckoned with. Local girl Ingebjorg Kosmo made a wholly successful Eboli. What she may lack in pin-your-ears-back power in the lower middle, she more than makes up for with a healthily-produced sound and intelligent artistry. True, she broke up a few climactic phrases so as to give the most kick possible at the end of “Fatale” but then so do other successful practitioners. Silvia Moi’s light-voiced Tebaldo contributed all that was required, and she had a committed and graceful stage presence.

I would think that Anja Harteros must be rapidly on a track to become the Elisabetta of choice for the world’s leading houses. She deploys her dark-hued voice with technical mastery and deeply personalized phrasing, laden with meaning and gorgeous tone. She can handle the dramatic outbursts with common sense pacing, and can float a secure pianissimo at will. And it is no stretch to imagine this beautiful woman as both a queen, and the object of someone’s romantic attention.

Peter Mattei deployed his mellifluous kavalierbariton to tremendous effect with a beautifully sung Posa. His tall and lanky presence literally towered over the rest of the cast, and his acting was simple and affecting. His emotion-laden prison scene was all that could be wished.

The title role has been a calling card for tenor Keith Ikaia-Purdy all over the continent (several continents, in fact) and it is easy to see why. This wonderful artist serves up a richly detailed and nuanced performance, as capable of full-throated outpourings of pointed sound, as he is at scaling back to well-crafted mezzo-piano and sotto voce phrases laden with subtext. His subtlety impresses as much as does his capacity for clarion top notes.

Of course, our hero does get pushed aside in the final act as soloist after soloist regale us with some of the top four arias/pieces Verdi ever produced. (After he reappears in the prison scene with Rodrigo, I always sort of summon up a paraphrased echo of Anna Russell: “Remember Don Carlo?”). However, Mr. Ikaia-Purdy’s presence and committed acting immediately recaptured our attention, and Posa’s death was the most affecting I have ever experienced, not just because Mr. Mattei sang it uperlatively, but because our Don Carlo cradled the baritone in such inexpressible grief.

While this Oslo experience was first class and the performance top drawer, it was to prove to be only the first of three wonderful Scandinavian evenings.

Somehow, over the years, I have never been in Stockholm during the regular opera season, having made it to the Drottningholm and Dalhalla festivals, but not to the lovely and venerable Belle Epoque-style home of the Swedish Royal Opera. The occasion of this first visit was the premiere of a handsome new mounting of Samson et Dalila, cast from strength with (as far as I can tell) regular company members.

Samson_RoyalSwedishOpera.pngRichard Decker sang the title role as well as anyone probably does these days. Think of a more suave and musically refined Cura, and you’ll get the idea. Mr. Decker’s muscular, baritonal tenor served Samson very well and he certainly had the requisite beefy high notes, although sometimes achieved by fudging of the French (the exposed “Je t’aime” came out “zhah-tah-mah”.) Too, he cuts a handsome enough figure and his acting was sincere and appropriate.

David Bizic turned in a world-class star performance as the “High Priest,” his rich bass ringing out with pointed declamation and astonishing vocal presence. It’s not often this role gets the lion’s share of applause. The disappointing and woolly Albimelich was taken by Sten Wahlund, who (although no announcement was made) had to have been indisposed.

Dalila was engagingly sung by Anna Larsson, who paired her plummy and rich mezzo with committed acting to great effect. The famous arias were sumptuously rendered, and the self-righteous pronouncements were filled with dramatic fire. If her rapid melismas sounded a bit effortful here and there, this was overall a notable success. A handsome woman,Ms. Larsson was somewhat hindered by a costume that was too drab, albeit wholly in keeping with the “concept.”

Director/choreographer Renaud Doucet boldly chose to frame the piece in modern day Gaza. This allowed for some brilliant opportunities, as well as some vexing problems. Not least of which is that while Yitzhak Rabin is lionized, and the Jewish plight is sympathetically heightened, the necessities of the opera’s plot assignments make the Palestinians come off very badly. Very very badly. So, while short on diplomacy and balance, just how did it come off as theatre?

Well. Indeed, very very well. The handsome design by Andre Barbe was meticulously lit by Guy Simard. The settings were rather like modern sculpture for people who don’t think they like modern sculpture. We first see imposingly large, burnished silver metal security walls with bright (and I mean bright) red rope threaded through it high above the action. Is the huge knot meant to be the Gordian knot? Is it the rope of fate waiting to be woven? No matter, it is beautiful as can be, and…it allows us to theorize.

These walls are re-configured for act two creating a “room” of sorts down left, and a huge coil of the red rope is fashioned into a couch (with culminating tassel laid to rest beside it), upon which our lovers consummate their passion before it becomes a barber-chair-by- default. The walls tighten to create a narrow space center stage in which “Samson at the mill” is really turning a giant spindle on which a length of red rope is being wound. Finally, the great hall is framed by pieces of these walls creating a forced perspective, with a greatly truncated rope is strung between the upstage receding walls. The set pieces shuddered, bent and tumbled very effectively in the Climactic Pillar Pull.

The modern dress costumes (also by Mr. Barbe) were appropriate, with exception of our heroine. Although she had to be in Muslim dress, complete with head scarf, it did not allow her to be physically alluring, and indeed her dress entirely argued against that which hampered the obvious sexual dynamic considerably.

However, most of the stage pictures were gripping, and the visceral connection with some of the visual imagery was brilliant. The opera started with a shallow playing space, backed by a scrim. Children are playing with a soccer ball stage left, a white limo is parked stage right. A couple of worried mothers hasten their children away when several evil looking goons approach the car. The thugs leave, the kids return, and then the car “explodes,” with pieces of it carried through the air in stylized fashion by the white suited terrorists. We audibly gasped at the horrific simplicity of this stagecraft.

The Bacchanal was another master stroke. Instead of the usual DeMille kitsch, Doucet realized it as the occasion for production of a suicide bomber recruiting film, that got more and more abhorrent as first a woman begs to be included in the mission (and is allowed), and then a young couple with a very small child. Compelling theatre. This same film is later shown as video footage on Dagon News with Dalila and the Priest as fanatical commentators.

And things were on the same high level in the pit. Conductor Gregor Buehl led a beautifully judged and stylistically convincing account of this most atmospheric of scores. He was not only accommodating of his fine soloists, but elicited clean and dramatically convincing singing from the well-trained chorus.

It will be a long time before I encounter as gripping and musically satisfying a Samson et Dalila as this at the Swedish Royal Opera. I changed gears entirely the following night, encountering a delightful new production of Handel’s Partenope in Copenhagen at the Danish Royal Opera. Although this company also has a gorgeous new house for the larger-scale pieces in the repertoire, they still use the handsome “old” house for Baroque and chamber operas.

Pride of place for this Partenope has to go to conductor Lars Ulrik Mortensen and his exceptional instrumentalists. This was without a doubt the best period instrument performance (and perhaps Handel performance) I have yet heard. To me, this music can sometimes just churn on and on, albeit very pleasantly. But here was a reading with a consistent dramatic tension, an electrifying propulsion, a flawless sense of melodic line, and creatively varied dramatic accents, not least of which were the oft magical “buttons” at the end of set pieces. Magical, that is indeed the word.

The Royal Opera assembled uncommonly fine soloists all, with the star hype being reserved for counter-tenor Andreas Scholl. This debut performance as Arsace was only his third opera role. To get the bad news out of the way, Mr. Scholl was announced as “greatly indisposed” but, in the interest of the premiere, he was going to go on and do his best. And his considerable “best” was, well, quite good enough.

Although he vocally marked his recitatives, he did not stint one whit in his acting and physical business. From photos, I had expected him to be short, bespectacled, and bookish, but sans glasses, he was tall, dark, and handsome. And like Juan Diego Florez, he has excellent comic acting abilities. He was highly affecting in his famous plaintive arias. A total professional, his committed and brave performance was not only enjoyable, it made me want to hear him again when he is well. It was quite evident that Mr. Scholl is a special artist.

The rest of the company was not only healthy, but fabulous. French counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux (Armindo) showed off an unusually bright and focused tone, and was wholly impressive in his solid technique, pleasing demeanor, and fearless physical acting. At opera’s start, I though that Inger Dam-Jensen’s “Partenope” might be a little diffuse in tone for the role’s demands, but in a matter minutes — wow — she sounded like Renee at her most ravishing, with awesome rapid-fire coloratura and superb musicianship. Her spoiled sex kitten approach slowly matured to create the evening’s most detailed and fully realized character.

Company member Tuva Semmingsen’s securely voiced Rosmira was solidly on a quality level of many of the world’s better known (and probably, paid) mezzos. On the basis of this assured outing, Ms. Semmingsen emphatically has the agility, burnished tone, stylistic command, and star presence to join their ranks. She is short, wiry, fiery, and delectable.

In the smaller role (vocally, if not in stage time) of Ormonte, Palle Knudsen first appeared scampering on stage from the prompter’s box, and proceeded to surprise and delight us the whole night, at one point rappelling to the stage from a spectator box. Mr. Knudsen’s rolling and refined baritone also possesses good agility, and he proved a perfect narrator/facilitator to move along the convoluted story and plot twists. As the less sympathetic Emilio, Bo Kristian Jensen had an energetic presence that was matched by some dynamic singing.

Director Francisco Negrin staged the improbable and long-winded story with a light comic touch, illuminating character relationships, deploying wholly successful physicality (not above the use of pratfalls!), lovingly crafted poignancy, and sparingly evoked sentimentality. His love of the piece and the genre was infectious and his cast (And audience) responded in kind.

The sets and costumes by Louis Desire, well-lit by Bruno Poet (great lightning effects), offered many delights. The plot’s requisite imposing walls look to be made of rocks like in some of those Neptune grottos you’ve seen around Europe. Patterns of vegetation in earth tones give way to a reveal of some nautical creatures and flora and fauna. Two massive perpendicular arches start on the sidelines, then roll in and out as the drama requires. A long table and chairs are imaginatively used as platform, dining table, runway, etc, and economically offer any number of creative blocking possibilities.

Partenope_Copenhagen.pngInger Dam-Jensen as Partenope and Andreas Scholl as Arsace (Photo by Thomas Petri courtesy of The Royal Danish Opera)

A long heavy staircase fronts the rear wall, from which wall a large oval piece just falls out during the thunder storm, to great effect. The turntable revolves to reveal a secondary platform behind that hole-y wall, which serves as a sort of rocky ledge upon which the rain-drenched and blanket-covered principles begin the next act.

Mr. Desire’s well-tailored and elegant costumes flatter and inform all of the characters. However, Partenope herself was especially lovingly attired, first in a lustrous rust strapless gown; then in a fetching black number that is shed to put on a tuxedo jacket stripped from a hunky extra; and last a gorgeous,spangly, stately gold sleeveless gown, the progression of all reflecting her growing maturity.

Danish Royal Opera should be justifiably proud of their new Partenope, a musically resplendent and theatrically rich entertainment that meets the highest standards of any international company.

James Sohre

image= image_description=Peter Mattei as Posa, René Pape as Filip II (Don Carlo, Oslo)

product=yes producttitle=G. Verdi: Don Carlo productby=Filip II (René Pape/ Frode Olsen), Elisabeth (Anja Harteros/ Birgitte Christensen), Don Carlo (Fabio Sartori/Henrik Engelsviken), Eboli (Ingebjørg Kosmo/Kathuna Mikaberidze), Posa (Peter Mattei/Trond Halstein Moe). Den Norske Opera & Ballett. Conductor: Marco Guidarini. Director: Nicholas Hytner. product_id=Above: Peter Mattei as Posa, René Pape as Filip II

Photo courtesy of Den Norske Opera & Ballett

Posted by Gary at 5:42 AM

Boston Baroque’s Xerxes shows the way

Certainly, Martin Pearlman’s band has been out there on CD as well as live performance since 1973, but somehow, they’ve never quite garnered the international renown that is more than their due. Perhaps that is down to the very nature of their home city — sequestered as they are in leafy streets and squares, an academic island insulated from the hue and cry of New York’s glitzier scene — let alone the period powerhouses across the Atlantic. Perhaps it is just their choice? If so, that’s lucky for their European competitors, some of whom might have to look to their laurels.

Boston Baroque have a fine record of producing Handelian opera with limited space and resources and with their most recent Xerxes, presented semi-staged by first-time opera director Paul Peers in the fine acoustic of Jordan Hall, (seating 1100), they have succeeded again. The key to this Xerxes was the integration of a fine cast of mainly young singers with a band that has this musical idiom in their very fibre, and a lean semi-staging by Paul Peers that used the limited space to good effect without making the mistake of imposing too much business onto music and a sparkling libretto that doesn’t need it. The musicians were seated centrally on the stage, and the singers moved around, behind and in front of them, using various exits (and the auditorium itself occasionally) to give visual variety. Dress was modern, unexciting but acceptable.

If Handel didn’t have much success with this opera at its London opening (it only lasted 5 nights) and was soon moving on into the more reliable world of oratorio, this is no reflection on his genius. It was simply that Xerxes was just too explorative, too outré, too challenging in its musical design, for the opera seria buffs of 1738. For a start, many of the arias don’t follow the set pattern of A-B-A of the time; there are less formal, more flowing sections of arioso and chatty recitative that move the action forward without so many regular stops for star-vehicle arias. And there is, of course, with the Elviro servant character, out and out comedy, almost buffo, that hardly fitted the pattern of the day. There is the usual romantic cats-cradle of mistaken identity, forbidden love, and jealousies of course, but this is a more tender, more emotional, exploration of humanity’s foibles than Handel often pursued.

The casting of baroque opera in the USA is less problematic than it used to be back when Boston Baroque was in the vanguard of period performance. More conservatories are now including period performance practice in their curricula, but it’s still not mainstream in the way that it often is in the capitals of Europe. For young singers fighting for work in America it’s tough, and they have to be adaptable — and take every opportunity to learn from specialists like Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque. This particular cast was, by and large, — considering the results — surprisingly inexperienced in the genre: the more to their, and Pearlman’s credit.

On the female side, only soprano Amanda Forsythe as the foxy, feisty Atalanta, forever interfering, could be described as au fait with Handel and if she was tempted on occasion to over-egg the comedy, it was an appealing performance that showcased some brilliant highwire work. Equally pleasing to the ear was mezzo Leah Wood in the difficult role of the wronged and rather out-of-sorts Amastre, although a little more volume might have helped her in her more declamatory music which she sang with commitment and a warm steady tone throughout. Marie Lenormand took the role of prince Arsamenes, often these days sung successfully by countertenors, and although she sang with great expressiveness her soft-grained mezzo soprano and natural femininity of movement rather prevented her from fully inhabiting the character — a lovely young singer, but rather miscast here. An exciting voice for the future is talented Texan soprano Ava Pine who sang the role of Romilda, beloved by both King Xerxes and his brother Arsamenes. She belied her inexperience in the genre to give a riveting performance that grew with every scene, her richly expressive soprano under fine control throughout, with plenty of dynamic on tap when needed.

With the male performers, without doubt the star of the show was male soprano Michael Maniaci in the title role. Maniaci, experienced in both baroque and classical style, has a growing and deserved reputation as a fine young singer with some recent major successes both in North America and Europe (his Armando in the recently released DVD of the Fenice production of Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto caused quite a stir), and this was his first attempt at a role which up to now has almost always, for obvious reasons, gone to period-specialist mezzos. It was the right decision as the role was perfect for his dark-hued soprano; it would be good to hear him as Xerxes again elsewhere, or even recorded at some future date. He has a unique timbre, with power to spare, a great facility for coloratura at dizzying heights and yet also the ability to spin long lines with tender expressivity when required. If Maniaci had the showpieces, then Michael Scarcelle enjoyed the comic possibilities of the servant Elviro, his agile dark baritone flipping up easily into pantomime falsetto and his athletic figure skipping easily up and down the auditorium steps for the “drag” scene of the “flower-seller”. Supporting the whole pyramid of Handelian voices was the resonant bass of Mark Schnaible as the dopey general Ariodate; it was good to hear this role sung by a low voice in its prime. The chorus of Boston Baroque sang and marched confidently as required, their obvious facility with the genre matching their excellent intonation and diction.

Throughout all, Martin Pearlman, conducting (when not pestered by Atalanta) his 25-strong band with verve, precision and great rhythm, kept a supporting eye and ear out for his singers and got the dynamic balance exactly right. This was high-class Handel, and if only Boston got to hear it for two nights, then that was Boston’s good fortune.

Sue Loder © 2008

image= imagedescription=Michael Maniaci (Xerxes)/Amanda Forsythe (Atalanta) © Julian Bullitt/Boston Baroque

product=yes producttitle=G. F. Handel: Xerxes productby=Michael Maniaci, Amanda Forsythe, Marie Lenormand, Leah Wool, Michael Scarcelle, Ava Pine and Mark Schnaible. Boston Baroque. Martin Pearlman: conductor. Paul Peers: director. product_id=Above: Michael Maniaci (Xerxes) and Amanda Forsythe (Atalanta)

Photo © Julian Bullitt/Boston Baroque

Posted by Gary at 5:33 AM

PUCCINI: La Bohème — Vienna 1988

First Performance: 1 February 1896. Teatro Regio, Turin

Principal Characters:
Rodolfo, a poet Tenor
Schaunard, a musician Baritone
Benoit, a landlord Bass
Mimi, a maker of artificial flowers Soprano
Marcello, a painter Baritone
Colline, a philosopher Bass
Alcindoro, a state councilor Bass
Musetta Soprano
A Custom-House Sergeant Bass
Parpignol, a toy vendor Tenor

Setting: Paris, mid-19th Century


La Bohème aroused quick public response, thanks to its heart-warming melodies and absorbing drama. Many early critics, however, objected strongly to its story, its music, even its romantic freedom. Turinese writers bemoaned what they called a decline in Puccini’s powers; some dubbed the new work a mere potboiler, others dismissed it as an operina or operetta, and here in New York the Tribune critic flailed the new work as “foul in subject and fulminant and futile in its music.” In due course, however, even the critics were won over by the bubbling verve and intense fervor of the music. Today most opera-goers would rank La Bohème among their favorite operas.


Act I

Scene: In the Attic.

The cold, bleak garret dwelling of the inseparable quartet, Rodolfo, poet; Marcello, painter; Colline, philosopher; Schaunard, musician, is certainly large enough to accommodate such a family. The sparse furniture makes it seem doubly spacious. For the fireplace — devoid of fire — the few chairs, the table, the small cupboard, the few books, the artist’s easel, appear like miniatures in this immense attic. Marcello, busily painting at his never-finished canvas — The Passage of the Red Sea — stops to blow on his hands to keep them from freezing. Rodolfo, the poet, gazes through the window over the snow-capped roofs of Paris. Marcello breaks the silence by remarking that he feels as though the Red Sea were flowing down his back, and Rodolfo answers the jest with another. When Marcello seizes a chair to break it up for firewood, Rodolfo halts him, offering to sacrifice the manuscript of one of his plays instead. The doomed play now goes into the flames, act by act, and as it burns, the friends feast their eyes on the blaze, but gain scant warmth from it. The acts burn quickly, and Colline, who now enters stamping with cold, declares that since brevity is the soul of wit, this drama was truly sparkling.

Accompanied by errand boys, the musician Schaunard bursts in cheerfully, bringing wood for the fire, food and wine for the table, and money — plenty of it, from the way he flashes it. To his enraptured companions he relates how a rich English amateur has been paying him liberally for music lessons. The festivities are cut short by the arrival of the landlord Benoit, who begins to demand his long overdue rent, when he is mollified by the sight of money on the table. As he joins the comrades in several rounds of drinks, he grows jovial and talkative. The young men feign shock when the tipsy landlord begins to boast of his affairs with women in disreputable resorts, protesting that they cannot tolerate such talk in their home; and he a married man, too! The gay quartet seize the landlord and push him out of the room.

Rodolfo remains behind to work as his companions go off to the Café Momus to celebrate. He promises to join them in five minutes. He now makes several fruitless attempts to continue an article, and a timid knock at the door finally interrupts his efforts. Rodolfo opens, and a young girl enters shyly. While explaining that she is a neighbor seeking a light for her candle, she is suddenly overcome by a fit of coughing. Rodolfo rushes to her side to support her as she begins to faint and drops her candle and key. He gives her some water and a sip of wine. Rodolfo recovers the candle, lights it, and, after accompanying her to the door, returns to his work. A moment later Mimi re-enters. She has suddenly remembered the key and pauses at the threshold to remind Rodolfo of its loss. Her candle blows out, and Rodolfo offers his, but that, too, soon goes out in the draft. Left in the dark, they grope together along the floor for the lost key. Rodolfo finds it and quietly pockets it. Slowly he makes his way toward his visitor, as if still searching for the key, and sees to it that their hands meet in the dark. Taken unawares, the girl gives a little outcry and rises to her feet. “Thy tiny hand is frozen” (“Che gelida manina”), says Rodolfo tenderly; “let me warm it for you.”

Rodolfo assists the girl to a chair, and as he assures her it is useless to hunt for the key in the dark, he begins to tell her about himself. “What am I?” he chants; “I am a poet!” Not exactly a man of wealth, he continues, but one rich in dreams and visions. In a wondrous sweep of romantic melody he declares she has come to replace these vanished dreams of his, and now he dwells passionately on her eyes, eyes that have robbed him of his choicest jewels. As the aria ends, Rodolfo asks his visitor to tell him about herself. “Who are you?” he asks.

Simply, modestly, the girl replies: “My name is Mimi,” and in an aria of touching romantic sentiment, she confides that she makes artificial flowers for a living. Meanwhile she yearns for the real blossoms of spring, the meadows, the sweet flowers that speak of love.

Rodolfo is entranced by the simple charm and frail beauty of his visitor and sympathizes with her longing for a richer life. The enchanted mood is broken by the voices of Marcello. Colline, and Schaunard. calling Rodolfo from the street below. As Rodolfo opens the window to answer, the moonlight pours into the room and falls on Mimi. Rodolfo, beside himself with rapture, bursts out with a warm tribute to her beauty, and soon the two of them unite their voices in impassioned song. “O soave fanciulla” (“O lovely maiden”). Mimi coquettishly asks Rodolfo to take her with him to the Café Momus, where he is to rejoin his friends. They link arms and go out and as they go down the stairs their voices are heard blending in the last fading strains of their ecstatic duet.

Act II

Scene: A Students’ Café in the Latin Quarter.

It is Christmas Eve. A busy crowd is swarming over the public square on which the Café Momus stands. Street vendors are crying their wares, and students and working girls cross the scene, calling to one another. Patrons of the café are shouting their orders to waiters, who bustle about frantically. The scene unfolds in a joyful surge of music, blending bits of choral singing, snatches of recitative. and a lively orchestral accompaniment. Rodolfo and Mimi. walking among the crowd arm in arm, stop at a milliner’s, where the poet buys her a new hat. Then the lovers go to the sidewalk table already occupied by Colline. Marcello, and Schaunard.

Parpignol, a toy vendor, bustles through the crowd with his lantern-covered pushcart, trailing a band of squealing and squabbling children, who pester their mothers for money to buy toys. As the children riot around him, Parpignol flings his arms about in despair and withdraws with his cart. Meanwhile the Bohemians have been ordering lavishly, when suddenly there is a cry from the women in the crowd: “Look, look, it’s Musetta with some stammering old dotard!” Musetta, pretty and coquettish, appears with the wealthy Alcindoro, who follows her slavishly about. Musetta and Marcello had been lovers, had quarreled and parted. Noticing Marcello with his friends, the girl occupies a near-by table and tries to draw his attention. Marcello at first feigns indifference, and when Mimi inquires about the attractive newcomer, Marcello replies bitterly: “Her first name is Musetta, her second name is Temptation!” In an access of gay daring, Musetta now sings her famous waltz, “Quando me’n vo soletta per la via” in which she tells how people eye her appreciatively as she passes along the street.

The melody floats lightly and airily along, a perfect expression of Musetta’s lighthearted nature. Presently the voices of the other characters join in — Alcindoro trying to stop her; Mimi and Rodolfo blithely exchanging avowals of love; Marcello beginning to feel a revived interest in Musetta; Colline and Schaunard commenting cynically on the girl’s behavior. Their varied feelings combine with Musetta’s lilting gaiety in an enchanting fusion of voices. Musetta now pretends her shoe hurts, that she can no longer stand, and Alcindoro hurries off to the nearest shoemaker. The moment he disappears from sight, she rushes to Marcello. The reunited lovers kiss, and Musetta takes a chair at Marcello’s table. The elaborate supper ordered by Alcindoro is served to the Bohemians along with their own. As distant sounds of music are heard, the crowd runs excitedly across the square to meet the approaching band. Amid the confusion the waiter brings in the bill, the amount of which staggers the Bohemians. Schaunard elaborately searches for his purse. Meanwhile as the band comes nearer and nearer, the people along the street grow more and more excited. Musetta rescues her friends from their plight by instructing the waiter to add the two bills together and present them to Alcindoro when he returns. A huge crowd now rushes in to watch as the patrol, headed by a drum major, marches into view. Musetta, lacking a shoe, hobbles about, till Marcello and Colline lift her to their shoulders and carry her off triumphantly to the rousing cheers of the crowd. Panting heavily, Alcindoro runs in with a new pair of shoes for Musetta, and as he slumps dejectedly into a chair he receives the collective bill.


Scene: A Gate to the City of Paris (the Barrière d’Enjer).

A bleak, wintry dawn at one of the toll gates to the city. At one side of the snow-blanketed square stands a tavern, over the entrance of which, as a signboard, hangs Marcello’s picture of the Red Sea. From within the tavern come sounds of revelry. Outside the gate a motley crowd of scavengers, dairy women, truckmen, and farmers have gathered, demanding to be let through. One of the customs officers warming themselves at a brazier saunters over to the gate and admits the crowd. From the tavern comes the sound of Musetta’s voice. Peasant women pass through the gate, declaring their dairy products to the officials. From a side street leading out of the Latin Quarter comes Mimi, shivering with cold. A violent fit of coughing seizes her as she asks one of the officers where she can find Marcello. The officer points to the tavern, and Mimi sends a woman in to call him. Marcello, rushing to her side, greets her warmly with a cry of “Mimi!” “Yes, it is I; I was hoping to find you here,” she replies weakly. Marcello tells her that he and Musetta now live at the tavern: he has found sign-painting more profitable than art, and Musetta gives music lessons. Mimi tells Marcello she needs his help desperately, for Rodolfo has grown insanely jealous and the constant bickering has made life unbearable. In a tender duet with Mimi, Marcello expresses his sympathy, and her frequent coughing only deepens his concern.

When Rodolfo comes from the tavern to call Marcello, Mimi slips behind some trees to avoid being seen. Now Mimi overhears Rodolfo complaining to Marcello about their quarreling. Just as he announces his decision to give her up, Mimi reveals her presence by another coughing fit, and Rodolfo rushes to embrace her, his love returning at the sight of her pale, fragile beauty. But she breaks away, and sings a touching little farewell song, in which she says she bears him no ill will, that she will now return to her little dwelling, that she will be grateful if he will wrap up her few things and send them to her.

Meanwhile Marcello has re-entered the tavern and caught Musetta in the act of flirting. This brings on a quarrel, which the couple continue in the street. As Mimi and Rodolfo bid each other good-by — “Addio, dolce svegliare alia matina” (“Farewell, a sweet awakening in the morning”) — their friends almost reach the point of blows in their quarrel. The music vividly mirrors the difference in temperament of the two women — Mimi, sad, gentle, ailing; Musetta, bold and belligerent — as well as the different response of the two men. “Viper!” “Toad!” Marcello and Musetta shout to each other as they part. “Ah, that our winter night might last forever,” laments Mimi. Their resolve to part weakens in the new mood of tenderness, and as they leave the scene Rodolfo sings, “Ci lascieremo alla stagion fiorita” — “We’ll say good-by when the flowers are in bloom.”

Act IV

Scene: In the Attic (as in Act I).

Rodolfo and Marcello, having again broken off with their mistresses, are back in their garret, living lonely, melancholy lives. Rodolfo is at his table, pretending to write, while Marcello is at his easel, also pretending. They are obviously thinking of something else — of their happy times with Mimi and Musetta. When Rodolfo tells Marcello that he passed Musetta on the street looking happy and prosperous, the painter feigns lack of interest. In friendly revenge, he tells Rodolfo he has seen Mimi riding in a sumptuous carriage, looking like a duchess. Rodolfo tries, unsuccessfully, to conceal his emotions, but a renewed attempt to work proves futile. While Rodolfo’s back is turned, Marcello takes a bunch of ribbons from his pocket and kisses them. There is no doubt whose ribbons they are. Rodolfo, throwing down his pen, muses on his past happiness. “Oh, Mimi, you left and never returned” (“Ah, Mimi, tu piu”), he sings; “O beautiful bygone days; O vanished youth.” Marcello joins in reminiscently, wondering why his brush, instead of obeying his will, paints the dark eyes and red lips of Musetta.

Their mood brightens momentarily as Colline and Schaunard enter with a scant supply of food. With mock solemnity the friends apply themselves to the meager repast as if it were a great feast. When a dance is proposed, Rodolfo and Marcello begin a quadrille, which is quickly cut short by Colline and Schaunard, who engage in a fierce mock duel with fire tongs and poker. The dancers encircle the, duelists, and just as the festive mood reaches its height, Musetta bursts in. She brings sad news: Mimi, who is with her, is desperately ill. The friends help Mimi into the room and place her tenderly on Rodolfo’s bed. Again Rodolfo and Mimi are in each other’s arms as past quarrels are forgotten. When Musetta asks the men to give Mimi some food, they confess gloomily there is none in the house, not even coffee. Mimi asks for a muff and Rodolfo begins rubbing her hands, which are stiff with cold. Musetta gives her earrings to Marcello, telling him to sell them to buy medicine and summon a doctor. Then, remembering Mimi’s request, she goes to get her own muff. Spurred by Musetta’s example, Colline resolves to sell his beloved overcoat to make some purchases for Mimi. In a pathetic song he bids farewell to the coat, and departs with Schaunard to find a buyer. Rodolfo and Mimi are now alone. Faintly her voice is heard: “Have they gone? I pretended to be sleeping so that I could be with you. There is so much to say.” The lovers unite their voices in a duet of poignant beauty as they recall the days spent together, of the first time they met, of how she told him her name was Mimi. Reminiscent strains of melody are spun by the orchestra as the couple dwell on their attic romance. Mimi wants to know if Rodolfo still thinks her beautiful. “Like dawn itself!” he exclaims ardently. Suddenly Mimi, coughing and choking, sinks back in a faint. Rodolfo cries out in alarm, as Schaunard enters and asks excitedly what has happened. Mimi, reviving, smiles wanly and assures them everything is all right. Musetta and Marcello enter quietly, bringing a muff and some medicine. Mimi eagerly seizes the muff, which Musetta insists Rodolfo has purchased for her. Growing weaker and weaker, Mimi at last falls asleep — or, so it seems. Marcello heats the medicine; the other men whisper together, and Musetta begins to pray. Rodolfo has fresh hope, now that Mimi is sleeping so peacefully. Schaunard tiptoes over to the bed. Mimi is not asleep — she is dead! Shaken, he whispers the news to Marcello. Rodolfo, having covered the window to keep out the light of dawn, notes the sudden change in his friends at the other end of the room. As he realizes the truth, the orchestra pounds out fortissimo chords full of tragic impact. Musetta kneels at the foot of the bed, Schaunard sinks into a chair, Colline stands rooted to one spot, dazed, while Marcello turns away to hide his grief. Rodolfo rushes across the room, flings himself on Mimi’s bed, lifts her up, and sobs brokenly, “Mimi! . . , Mimi! … Mimi!”

[Adapted from The Victor Book of the Opera, 1929]

Click here for the complete libretto.

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product=yes producttitle=Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème productby=Mimi (Mirella Freni), Musetta (Patricia Wise), Rodolfo (Placido Domingo), Marcello (Alberto Rinaldi), Colline (Ferruccio Furlanetto), Schaunard (Gottfried Hornik). Wiener Staatsoper. Garcia Navarro (cond.)

Live performance, 8 January 1988, Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna.

Posted by Gary at 12:01 AM